A sore throat is often the first symptom of a cold, but when a sore throat is accompanied by oral pain, it could be a sign of an infected tooth or something even more serious. It’s important to pay close attention to symptoms and see a dentist if you suspect a serious dental problem, as it could lead to a life-threatening condition if left untreated.
Common Sore Throat Causes Due to Dental Issues
There are several oral conditions that can lead to pain in the throat; some that require prompt attention from a dentist, and some that are considered a medical emergency. Patients should carefully evaluate symptoms that accompany a sore throat to determine who to call for help.
Impacted Wisdom Teeth
Wisdom teeth don’t always have room to fully erupt, so they become impacted in the gums. The gum tissue on top of the impacted teeth creates a breeding ground for infection since it harbors food particles and bacteria. If bacteria settles into the tooth and surrounding gums, an infection can develop. One of the symptoms of an infected tooth is inflamed, swollen gum tissue that presses on nerve endings. Wisdom teeth are located at the back of the mouth near the throat, so it is common to have a sore throat when this happens.
Treatment for impacted wisdom teeth involves:
- Antibiotics. Antibiotics stop infection from spreading to other areas of the body. Sometimes oral antibiotics are sufficient, but severe infections might require hospital admission to receive stronger antibiotics.
- Surgical removal. Since there is a strong chance of the impacted tooth becoming infected again, removal is almost always the best option.
When a decaying tooth is left unfilled, bacteria can enter the inside or “pulp” of the tooth. Before long, that bacteria turns into a collection of pus, also known as a dental abscess. The infection causes severe, throbbing pain in the tooth and surrounding gums, and can even spread to the throat, causing pain. When the body tries to fight off a tooth infection, lymph nodes under the jaw and in the neck swell. This can also cause a sore throat on the side closest to the infection.
Because a dental abscess will not heal on its own, a dentist or endodontist will need to perform one of the following procedures:
- A root canal to remove the infected pulp. This involves cleaning out the damaged tissue inside of the tooth and replacing it with a rubbery substance called gutta-percha. The tooth then needs to be capped with a crown so bacteria can’t reach the inside.
- Extraction. If the tooth is not able to be saved, it will need to be pulled to stop the infection from spreading.
A Peritonsillar Abscess
A peritonsillar abscess is not directly caused by an infected tooth, but tooth and gum disease can increase the chances of it happening. Instead of pus forming in the tooth, it forms in the tissue at the back of the mouth. This usually happens as a complication of tonsillitis, when the infection breaks out of the tonsil and invades the space around it. A peritonsillar abscess can cause swelling that pushes the tonsil toward the uvula, resulting in a severe sore throat and trouble swallowing. Other symptoms include fever, swollen glands, headache, earache, and difficulty opening the mouth.
If not treated promptly, the infection may spread into the jaw and neck. And if the abscess pops, infection can reach the chest and lead to pneumonia. Patients should seek medical treatment for a peritonsillar abscess, rather than going to the dentist.
Treatment for a peritonsillar abscess involves either:
- Draining the abscess. This is a medical procedure in which a doctor either withdraws the pus with a needle or makes a small cut in the abscess with a scalpel to drain it.
- A tonsillectomy. If draining the abscess doesn’t cure the infection, tonsils may need to be removed.
Is a Sore Throat Caused by An Oral Infection Considered an Emergency?
If you suspect that a sore throat is related to the teeth rather than a medical issue, and if you also have the following symptoms, you should contact a dentist right away for an emergency appointment:
- Intense pain in your tooth and gums
- Pus coming out of a sore tooth
- Redness inside of the mouth
- A swollen face or jaw
- A bad taste in your mouth
- Foul breath
- Difficulty chewing or opening your mouth
Older patients and those who are immunocompromised are at an increased risk of complications from a dental abscess. Without prompt treatment, a tooth infection can spread to the face and neck, and can even lead to life-threatening complications such as:
- Osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone surrounding the tooth.
- Cavernous sinus thrombosis, an infection of the sinus blood vessels.
- Cellulitis, an infection of the skin and the fat directly beneath the skin.
- Sepsis, in which the immune system severely overreacts to an infection in the blood.
Even though these conditions can result from an infected tooth, they may ultimately need medical treatment as well as dental care.
Regular Dental Checkups are Important for Detecting Infected Teeth
While a sore throat is a symptom of many illnesses, it can sometimes result from a tooth infection. The best defense to prevent oral infections is to schedule bi-annual dental checkups. Not only are regular cleanings important for ridding teeth of bacteria; dentists use this opportunity to examine gums, teeth, and tonsils for any signs of infection. Early detection of cavities or impacted teeth can prevent a dental abscess from forming and allow you to avoid severe oral pain.
Whether you suspect a tooth infection or would like to schedule a routine exam, there’s a dentist near you who can help. Book an appointment in your area today.