How Long Until A Tooth Infection Kills You: The Truth

Updated: Jul 17

How long until you die from a tooth infection would depend on the stage of the infection because you have more time in an earlier stage and less time in a later one. If your tooth has been throbbing every now and then but still feels manageable, you should still figure out where you stand in the development of a tooth infection. That will tell you how much time you have left before it becomes really serious. So, are you willing to take the chance and put it off or will you try to get treatment?



Woman with a tooth infection

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How long can you live with an infected tooth?

Surprisingly, many people can live for months and even years with an infected tooth and be asymptomatic. Despite the fact that it can be asymptomatic and dormant at times, the infection coming from your tooth can definitely kill you if left untreated for an extended period of time.


How long it takes for a tooth infection to kill you would depend on the stage that the tooth infection is in. Each situation is different but for some people they can spend months to years in between the infection stages while the unlucky ones will progress through them quickly within days if not hours.


It would be helpful to understand the different stages of a tooth infection so that you can have a rough idea for how long before it can kill you and what you need to do about it.

  1. A small cavity in the enamel.

  2. Cavity that has reached the tooth nerve.

  3. Tooth decay that has reached the tip of the root becoming an abscess.

  4. Tooth abscess that has gone through the bone and into the gums.

  5. Dental abscess that causes facial swelling.

  6. Facial swelling that spreads to your throat.


A small cavity in the enamel

All tooth infections start off really small like a small cavity in the enamel of your tooth. What it looks like is usually a small hole on your tooth or a dark brown spot. It can be on the side of your tooth or on top of it.


A small cavity
A small cavity

Tooth decay at this stage can be easily treated with a simple cavity filling. The whole procedure should be quick and painless lasting no more than 45 minutes at the dentist.


This is also the stage where it can take months to if not years before the infection can actually kill you. The reason is because it takes a long time for a small cavity to reach the nerve, where it can finally form an abscess.


Cavity that has reached the tooth nerve

Small teeth decay that is left untreated will grow bigger and eventually reach the nerve of the tooth. Once the tooth nerve is infected, you will experience a throbbing tooth pain that comes and goes. That is a pain signal that your body is sending to let you know that something is wrong and you should not leave it untreated.


What it looks like is a very big cavity in your tooth. It is basically a big hole and you can usually feel the big hole if you run your tongue over it. The color will appear yellow or brown.


cavity that has reached the nerve
cavity that has reached the nerve

Fortunately at this stage of the infection, one of our long island city dentists can still help you by performing a root canal procedure. This involves removing the entire infected nerve by cleaning out the inside of the tooth. After that is completed, you should probably get a dental crown afterwards to protect it from future infections.


At this stage, you could potentially still have months before it can kill you because the infection still has a couple more stages before it becomes life threatening.


Tooth decay that has reached the tip of the root becoming an abscess.

If you ignore the throbbing pain, the tooth decay can travel all the way down the root of the tooth and start eating away at the bone. Once the tooth infection has eaten through the bone, it has become a full dental abscess.


What it looks like can only be seen on a dental x ray, where it appears as a large dark circle at the tip of the root. Darkness on an x ray signifies that the structure is becoming less solid and that is consistent with an abscess eating away at your bone.


Dental abscess at tip of the root
Dental abscess at tip of the root

The tooth abscess at this stage is still treated with a root canal but the procedure may require more visits because you will need antibiotics placed inside of the tooth to clear away the infection.


Typically, you should still have months before the tooth infection can kill you at this stage. Thankfully it isn't the last stage of a tooth infection.


Tooth abscess that has gone through the bone and into the gums.

If you leave the abscess at the root untreated, it can grow bigger and eventually pierce through your gums forming a gum boil. What it looks like is a pimple on your gums right besides the infected tooth. The color is typically reddish and very swollen looking. It is potentially very painful and tender to the touch.


Surprisingly, if you manage to pop the pimple it may stop hurting you for awhile because you're releasing the pressure from building up. These gum boils cause pain because you feel the pressure expanding in your gums and bone. The treatment for this involves a root canal along with draining the abscess. You will notice a lot of white pus exude out during the draining process.


This stage of an abscess is the maximum amount of time that a tooth infection can go untreated. At this tooth infection stage, you have maybe weeks to months before it can finally kill you.


Dental abscess that causes facial swelling.

If you leave the gum boil untreated, that small swelling can spread to the rest of your face. What this looks like is a very swollen face and is extremely painful because it can swell to the size of a golf ball or even baseball. All of that swelling is expanding and stretching out your face and that causes a lot of pain. The swollen areas will even feel warm to the touch because there is a very big active infection going on.



It will disrupt the quality of your life rendering you unable to ignore the problem. At this point in time, the tooth infection can still be treated by one of our dentists in long island city by draining the abscess and treating the infected tooth. This is considered emergency dentistry.


This is the last stage that we can help you with because with swelling this severe, you have at most just a few days before it can potentially kill you. It could progress very quickly from here to the next stage so you should run and not walk to the nearest dental office or urgent care center.



How do you tell if a tooth infection is killing you?

When the swelling from the tooth infection spreads down towards your throat thus effectively closing off your airway space rendering you unable to breathe, you'll know that the tooth infection is trying to kill you. Although you may be unconscious at this point. What this looks like is very severe swelling that involves your throat. The swelling will be so big that your face will look disfigured and deformed looking.


Do not be mistaken because a tooth infection with this amount of swelling is a real medical emergency and it IS life threatening. Don't walk to the nearest hospital, run to the nearest one or call 911 for assistance.


ludwig's angina
Credit: Unknown

Facial swelling that spreads to your throat

Severe facial swelling of this extent results in a condition called Ludwig's Angina. This is a life threatening situation that needs to be treated immediately at a hospital. Outpatient clinics won't be able to help you because the treatment is done in the operating room.



The tooth infection is so severe that the patient is unconscious and is on oxygen support. They will also have DRAINS coming straight out underneath their chin to help the abscess to drain.


If your tooth infection has gotten this far, you may only have a few hours to live before it kills you once and for all. If you were wondering how long does a tooth infection last, the answer would be until you finally meet your death. The reason is because the abscess from your tooth will continue to grow until professional intervention by a doctor is performed.



How common is death from a tooth infection?

The death rates from a tooth infection were approximately 10-40% in the pre-antibiotic era. After the discovery of penicillin, the fatality rate has drastically improved. There aren't a lot of studies covering the prevalence of death from a tooth infection but from what we can find, the rate was about 0.9% in a study of 297 patients that had deep head and neck space infections.


Even if the chances for survival have drastically improved since the middle ages, our LIC dentists still would not recommend letting an abscess grow into a Ludwig's angina because that can seriously ruin a few weeks of your life.



Takeaway

In essence, yes a tooth infection can eventually kill you if you leave it untreated but fortunately it is not very likely because most people will get it treated before it gets to that point. After all, each stage of the infection gets more disfiguring and progressively more painful due to the increase in swelling.


Last but not least, if you need one last reason to convince you to get treatment rather than wait is the cost. As you can imagine, if the swelling gets bad enough to require hospitalization you should think about how much the hospital bill would cost you. It'll definitely blow a hole through your bank account even if you have insurance.


A root canal may be expensive but throat swelling with a hospital stay is multiples of that!



Author: Written by Dr David Chen DDS, a long island city dentist.


David Chen 200 x 200.jpg

About the author: Dr David Chen, DDS

Hello, I'm Dr Chen and I'm an actively practicing dentist in Long Island City, NY. I graduated from Columbia University College of Dental Medicine in 2016 but prior to going to dental school I was already working in the dental field. It's been more than a decade since I first got to know dentistry and let me tell you, time flies by quickly. Since then I've developed a fondness for writing, which is how this all got started!

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Medical Disclaimer:

This blog is purely meant for information purposes and should not be used as medical advice. Each situation in your mouth is unique and complex. It is not possible to give advice nor diagnose any oral conditions based on text nor virtual consultations. The best thing to do is to go in person to see your dentist for an examination and consultation so that you can receive the best care possible.

The purpose of all of this oral health information is to encourage you to see your dentist and to inform you of what you may expect during your visit. Due to the unfortunate nature of dentistry, there isn't really any true home remedies that will get rid of dental problems. Roughly 99.99% of them require in-person intervention by a healthcare professional.

Hint: That is the reason why you can't eliminate seeing dentists in your life!