Dental Sepsis: The Danger of Letting Toothaches Go Untreated

Amy Barczy

| 3 min read

Amy Barczy is a former brand journalist who authored content at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Prior to her time at Blue Cross from 2019-2024, she was a statewide news reporter for MLive.com. She has a decade of storytelling experience in local news media markets including Lansing, Grand Rapids, Holland, Ann Arbor and Port Huron.

When it comes to dental health, preventive measures like completing an effective daily oral health routine and visiting a dentist and hygienist at least twice a year go a long way.
That’s because the mouth can be an easy entry point for bacterial infection – and left unchecked, it could lead to a devastating conclusion.
“Hundreds of years ago, dental infections were among the leading causes of death. Thanks to advancements in dental hygiene, modern dentistry techniques and antibiotics, this is no longer the case today,” said Dr. Kristi Thomas, associate dental consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “Yet, left untreated, dental infections can result in a life-threatening condition called sepsis.”

How dental infections start

Often dental infections begin in a tooth or gums and can spread to other surrounding tissues. Often infections start because of poor dental habits or care routines, consuming a diet high in sugary sodas and foods, carbohydrates, and acids as well as having a chronically dry mouth. Tooth decay and broken teeth or fillings can make the nerve inside of the tooth vulnerable to infection.
When a bacterial infection spreads to the tip of the root of the tooth, or in the gum tissue at the side of a tooth root, and begins to create a pocket of pus, this is called a tooth abscess. An abscess can be painful and irritating – and must be treated by a dentist. Antibiotics and a ruptured abscess may ultimately improve the pain and reduce swelling – but the source of the infection still needs to be treated.
“If the unhealthy tooth or gum tissue is left untreated, the infection from the abscess may spread to other areas such as your jaw, brain, or heart. This may lead to sepsis – or blood poisoning – which can threaten your life as it spreads throughout the body,” Thomas said. “The risk of the infection spreading increases if you have other health conditions that may weaken the immune system.

Dental sepsis in children

Children are at risk for developing complications from dental infections as well. About 23% of children ages 2 to 5 years old have dental caries in their primary teeth, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research in the National Institutes of Health.
In 2007, a 12-year-old boy died from complications from a toothache – after bacteria from his tooth abscess had spread to his brain. The tragedy inspired the creation of a nonprofit, TeamSmile, that seeks to remove barriers to dental care for children.
“In Michigan, about 50% of our kids have had a cavity, so prevention and disease elimination are so important,” Thomas said.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan was recently a major sponsor of TeamSmile and worked with the Detroit Lions to increase access to care for the children at the Lions Academy.
“Sepsis from a dental infection is rare, but does occur,” Thomas said. “It’s an unfortunate outcome that can often be prevented through good dental hygiene habits – brushing and flossing at least twice a day – and with regular visits to your dentist.”
Dr. Thomas offered the following advice:
  • “In most cases, toothaches can be treated with simple procedures that can resolve the infection – especially if they are caught early.”
  • “If you are experiencing tooth pain or sensitivity, or swelling in your face, cheek, or neck, see a dentist immediately.”
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