Tooth Infection Lethality: How Much Time Do I Have?

Written & Reviewed by Dr David Chen

A tooth infection can kill you within hours or it can take months but it depends on the severity and stage of your dental abscess. When left untreated, it can progress and spread to the surrounding soft tissue. Death is possible but it only occurs at the end stage of an infection.

tooth abscess

Unfortunately, the rate that the infection spreads can be unpredictable because it can be as slow as molasses while other times it can be quick.

However, the good news is that the mortality rate has declined drastically over the past few decades. Due to the advances in dental treatment modalities, the chances of you dying from a dental infection are quite low.

Can a tooth infection kill you?

Only the most severe form of a tooth infection called Ludwig angina can kill you. It is a potential complication from a late stage dental abscess often arising from an infected lower second molar or wisdom tooth.

How ludwig angina kills you:

  • An infection that rapidly and aggressive spreads from an infected mandibular second or third molar.
  • It spreads to the floor of the mouth and neck, resulting in airway obstruction.
  • Death due to asphyxiation.

In summary, the infection spreads from a bottom molar which causes your throat and neck to swell up resulting in you being unable to breath. Depending on the rate of the spread, you could die within a few hours without medical help.

Mortality rate

In the 1940s, there was a case study in which 54% (24 of 44) of patients with ludwig angina died. However, the mortality rate decreased dramatically with widespread penicillin use.

Only 3 years later, a new case study found that only 10% (2 of 20) of patients with ludwig angina died. The improvement in survival was due to the introduction of penicillin, refinements in airway management, and surgical therapy.

As of the present, morbidity and mortality from odontogenic (tooth) infections are so uncommon that it is “virtually inconceivable to the lay public.” In other words, the chances of you dying from a tooth infection present day is so rare that no one even thinks about it.

Dental complication deaths

Over the past 55 years, studies have shown that the risk of death is approximately 1 in 10 million people per year due to dental complications.

What the causes of death include:

  • Cardiovascular events (n = 31)
  • Infection (n = 19)
  • Airway–respiratory complications (n = 18)
  • Bleeding (n = 5)

Therefore the chances of you succumbing to a tooth infection are quite low. To put it into perspective, you can compare the mortality rates with other health conditions.

Cause of deathMortality rate
Dental complication1 in 10 million
Heart disease173.8 in 100,000
Stroke41.1 in 100,000
Diabetes25.4 in 100,000
Car crash deaths14.3 in 100,000
Dental related deaths vs other causes of death

A lot of people get quite worried about possibility of a mishap during full mouth extractions but as you can see, it is unlikely for you to die from it. There are plenty of other things in this world that have a higher chance of killing you.

How long until a tooth infection kills you

You won’t die from a tooth infection until it progresses into the end stage of an abscess and you develop ludwig angina with throat swelling. Therefore, how much time you have would depend on which stage of the infection that you’re at.

Tooth Abscess Stages
Tooth Abscess Stages
Tooth infection stageTime before death
Tooth decayMonths
Pulp infectionWeeks to months
Periapical abscessWeeks to months
Facial swellingDays
Throat swelling< 24 hours
How long it takes a dental infection to kill you

We would like to reiterate with a strong emphasis that the pace in which you progress from one stage to the next is highly unpredictable. Sometimes the infection can be so severe that you progress very quickly.

We highly recommend seeking help from a dentist the moment that you first notice an infection brewing with your tooth. You will never know how bad it can become.

How to tell if it’s about to kill you

The first 3 stages of a tooth infection are urgent where you should try to see a dentist as soon as possible. However, the last 2 stages are considered emergent where you absolutely need to stop everything that you’re doing and get help immediately.

Therefore, it is of utmost importance being able to recognize the signs of these two stages.

Signs & symptoms of a lethal dental infection:

  • Tooth pain so severe that it is unbearable.
  • Swelling in the mouth or face.
  • Swelling in the floor of the mouth and throat.
  • Difficulty closing and opening your mouth.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Breathing difficulties.

At the first notice of any of the above signs and symptoms, you need to seek help immediately.

Can I live with an infected tooth?

There isn’t a single healthcare provider that would tell you it is okay to live with an infected tooth. If you have a problem, you need to get it treated as soon as possible because issues don’t go away on their own.

When left untreated, infections will spread and get worse. Not only the complexity but also the cost of treatment will increase concurrently. That puts your health and your wallet at risk.

Nonetheless, from a holistic point of view, it is very unhealthy to have an infected body part comingle with the rest of your body. Get rid of that infection as soon as you can please.

Treatment

Odontogenic infections typically require a multifactorial approach to successfully treating it. You will most likely need a combination of dental treatments in order to get rid of it completely.

Tooth infection treatments:

  • Extraction – Infections where the restorative prognosis is poor, you may need the entire tooth removed. Afterwards you should replace the missing tooth with an implant.
  • Root canal – Tooth related abscesses where the restorative prognosis is good, you can remove just the nerve. Root canals are more conservative since you keep your own tooth.
  • Incision and drainage – Any type of swelling will need to be drained but an incision needs to be made first. Afterwards you may leave with a penrose drain inside of the abscess to allow it to continue draining for the next 48-72 hours.
  • Antibiotics – If you have major swelling you should expect to leave your dentist appointment with a full course of antibiotics. This will be in addition to receiving either of the three treatments above.

You won’t know exactly what treatment you need until you get a proper diagnosis. In other words, go see a dentist already!

Verdict

The time it takes for a tooth infection to kill you would depend on its severity. The beginning stages could take months before it reaches that point while the late stage could take hours.

However, with the widespread use of antibiotics and an improvement in dental treatment, the chances of you dying from an infection are quite low. But, that only applies if you get medical help because there isn’t a single home remedy that can help you.

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