A Toothache Can Kill You

As a dentist in private practice, I see all types of outlooks and attitudes regarding toothaches and other dental conditions. I see some patients who are deeply concerned to others who say “it’s just a tooth.” Others will state something like “it’s not hurting so why should I do something about it?”

When I see a patient with an obvious infection, I will often times say something like this: “you have an infection with about 100 billion nasty bacteria less than 2 inches from your brain. Are you sure you want to ignore this?”

Let’s look at a recent case I saw in my office.

Large Dental Abscess on the Lower Right

I saw the following patient who showed up in obvious pain:

Toothache abscess with swelling face photo of patient

This patient came to us with a golf ball size swelling on his lower right. The culprit? A tooth!

In the above photo, you can see the obvious swelling. After an exam, it was apparent the serious infection was originating from a tooth. I was very blunt with the patient. Either you get treatment now, or you will likely be in the ER getting ready for emergency surgery in less than 48 hours.

Want to see how it ended? Then watch our YouTube video below:

Infections like this – assuming they are not so advanced so as to require hospitalization with emergency surgery – are nearly always treated using the adage “cold steel and sunshine.” This expression is referring to extraction. The tooth is removed with “cold steel” and then the roots are exposed for the first time to “sunshine”. By removing the tooth, the source of the infection is removed, the pus drains, and in nearly all cases your immune system can fight off the infection.

How an Infected Tooth can Kill You

Many individuals are still skeptical that a tooth infection can kill you. After all, it’s just a tooth some will say. Well, if you read the stories located here, here, and here, you’ll see this is not a myth. It can happen.

So how does it happen? One of the more common causes is that the infection spreads to your brain. See the photo below:

Skull showing the proximity of the upper teeth to the brain.

Skull showing the proximity of the upper teeth to the brain. The roots are embedded in the bones of your skull and very close to your brain.

The above photo is that of a skull (which everyone knows). The bottom arrow points to the approximate location of the roots of an upper back tooth. In most cases, the infection (bacteria, pus, swelling) originates within the tooth but then enters the rest of the body through the tips of the roots. The top arrow points to the approximate location of the base of the brain. Now, this is a two dimensional photo of a three dimensional object (brain and skull). But you should be able to see that an infection with upper teeth roots places nasty, killer bacteria less than 2 inches from you brain!

If the nasty bacteria end up in the brain, it can fatal, and very quickly. It’s that simple. This is likely what happened in the case of Deamonte Driver.

Other Ways a Tooth Infection Can Kill You

There are other ways in which an infections associated with a tooth can be fatal:

  • Suffocation – no, I’m not joking. Infections associated with lower molars can lead to swelling of the throat, leading to collapse of your airway. You are simply unable to breath. This is most commonly seen in Ludwig’s Angina.
  • Heart Failure – I’m not joking with this either. The bacteria from a lower tooth can quite easily travel downward through the neck and set up around the heart. This can lead to issues with the heart and ultimately cause the heart to fail. An example of a case is located here.
  • And many other ways. Remember, teeth are part of your body too…
Ludwigs Angina

Photo of a case of Ludwig’s Angina. The swelling will literally cause your airway to close. Photo courtesy of wikipedia.

In summary, it’s important to not ignore a tooth infection, even if it does not hurt. You don’t want to be like the guy in our YouTube video!