Most of us have had an infection in our bodies at one time or another. From the itching and swelling of an infected cut to the coughing and sneezing that can signal an upper respiratory tract infection, dealing with most infections is usually simple - because they are contained within a specific region of the body.
But sometimes, infections can travel from one part of the body to another. In this case, things can get more complicated - and more serious. Bacteria, itself, in the body can be somewhat complicated. Certain bacteria are always regarded as harmful, wherever they’re found in the body. But other types of bacteria are normally present and harmless in one part of the body, but harmful if they move where they’re not commonly found. For example, your colon harbers many types of bacteria that are normally and healthily there, but if this bacteria moves outside your gastrointestinal tract, it can cause uncomfortable and serious infection.
The connection between tooth infection and chest pain
Tooth infections are fairly common. And usually, they can be quickly and simply treated with the right dental treatment and medicines. Sometimes, however, the bacteria causing a dental infection can move from one part of the body to another (such as the chest), causing new problems and pain.
In other, more rare cases, tooth and chest pain are linked in more complex ways. We’ll examine these and more below.
What is a tooth infection?
The mouth is full of bacteria. These bacteria can multiply due to eating food, particularly sugary foods, and poor oral hygiene. Sometimes, these bacteria can enter a tooth or move below the gumline, resulting in a tooth infection or abscess. An abscess is the medical term for a pocket of pus and bacteria that forms within the body’s tissues.
We usually know we have a tooth infection because we feel a toothache. Toothache happens due to inflammation of the central portion of the tooth called pulp. The pulp contains nerve endings that are very sensitive to pain.
Strange tastes, smells or different sensations around a tooth can also signal an infection and should never be ignored. If you have any of these symptoms, you should visit your dentist.
How can a tooth infection cause chest pain?
In rare cases, the germs in the mouth can spread to other parts of the body via the bloodstream. There, they can cause pain and inflammation that require urgent medical treatment. A few examples of this happening can be seen in the following medical conditions, all of which require urgent treatment:
- Pulmonary actinomycosis
- Infective endocarditis
If you are experiencing chest pain of any kind, you should always consult your doctor urgently and explain your symptoms in detail. If your chest pain is severe, you should call 911.
Here is some further information on the ways that tooth infections can be linked to infections in the chest cavity. There are other conditions, too, that are not listed here.
Pulmonary actinomycosis is a rare bacterial lung infection. It’s also known as thoracic actinomycosis.
The condition is caused by bacteria from the genus Actinomyces. These bacteria normally live in your mouth and gastrointestinal tract. Most of the time they are harmless. However, they can sometimes cause an infection.
In most cases, pulmonary actinomycosis occurs when a mixture of bacteria and food or secretions from the mouth or stomach accidentally end up in the lungs. This happens through aspiration. Aspiration is a word describing accidental inhalation of gastric or oral secretions into the lungs. This may occur for people with reduced gag refluxes, like in neurological disorders, or if someone is lethargic and vomiting and unable to protect their airway. It can also occur in persons who have had surgical procedures in their mouth or esophagus, or uncontrolled infection in their mouth that can be present in orally aspirated secretions that end up in the lungs.
Pulmonary actinomycosis can be serious. So consult your doctor if you have chest or lung pain, or have had any recent issues with accidentally inhaling food or vomit.
Mediastinitis is another potential health condition (and source of chest pain) that can be associated with tooth infections.
The area between the lungs, which contains the heart, windpipe, esophagus and other related structures, is known as the mediastinum. Inflammation in that area is called mediastinitis.
Sometimes, bacteria from an infected tooth can travel through your bloodstream and be the cause of mediastinitis. Mediastinitis is a serious and life-threatening condition, so always consult your doctor if you experience chest or lung pain.
Infective endocarditis is a rare condition that involves inflammation of the heart lining, heart muscles, and/or heart valves.
It is also known as bacterial endocarditis or fungal or viral endocarditis depending on the cause of the infection. In some cases, the bacteria present in tooth infections can be the cause of endocarditis, if the bacteria from your mouth travels through your blood-stream and sticks to the lining or valves of your heart.
You should always consult your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms of endocarditis, including chest pain, heart pain (also known as angina) fever, headache and shortness of breath.
The relationship between dental health and heart disease
At a broad level, research points to poor dental health as a potential risk factor for heart disease. This means that tooth pain (caused by tooth infections) and chest pain (due to heart conditions) can be related. It has been found that people with gum disease, tooth decay, tooth loss, and tooth infections have more cardiovascular problems like heart attacks or strokes.
There are a few theories about why this can happen. When you have an infection in your tooth or gums, the bacteria from the infection can enter your bloodstream and travel elsewhere in your body, including the heart and blood vessels. We have described some examples of medical conditions where this happens already.
In addition to damage and symptoms caused by the actual unwanted bacteria present in the heart or blood vessels, the bacteria can further cause an inflammatory reaction. Inflammation occurs when the body’s own immune system responds to the bacteria. Slow or chronic inflammation from the presence of continued unwanted bacteria is damaging to the heart and blood vessels.
Another consideration is that there are other factors that link the presence of heart problems to poor oral health. For example, people who smoke are more likely to have poor oral hygiene, and people who smoke are also at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes due to the effects of nicotine. People who cannot afford or have access to healthy food options may suffer more oral health problems, and also be at risk for heart and blood vessel problems, due to poorer nutrition options.
It’s important to recognize the potential connection between tooth infections and heart issues, but it’s also important to know that just because you have an infected tooth doesn’t mean you’ll develop heart problems. Bear in mind that the two can be related and make sure to see your dentist regularly.
Can tooth pain be a sign of something wrong in the heart?
Sometimes, things can work the other way around. Instead of an issue traveling from the tooth to the heart, the heart can send a warning message to a tooth or teeth.
Specifically, tooth pain or jaw pain has been found to be a possible warning sign that certain patients may be suffering from heart disease, such as blocked arteries.
This may sound strange, but is a fairly common phenomenon of pain being transferred from one part of the body to another, such as the experience of arm pain during a heart attack.
The signs that a toothache may be the sign of a bigger health issue include:
- a burning or pulsing pain
- a pain that suddenly comes and goes, or dramatically changes
- a long-lasting pain over days or months
- a sudden pain in multiple teeth
- a pain that does not respond to anaesthetics and numbing medicines
- A lack of response to dental treatment
- Pain that travels up from your chest to your jaw
Always be alert to your symptoms. And speak to your medical practitioner if you suspect you may be suffering from heart disease, or you have a family history of heart problems.
Preventing tooth infections
As many serious conditions start when bacteria present in infected teeth move into other parts of the body, the best thing you can do is to make sure you have good oral health and no dental problems. You can do this by visiting your dentist once every six months and brushing and flossing regularly.
The reason trips to the dentist are important (even if you don’t have pain) is because your dentist will be able to quickly spot any problems with your teeth and gums before they become serious issues. If your dentist sees any cavities, make sure to follow up promptly to get them filled, as untreated cavities are one of the leading causes of tooth infection.
During a checkup, your hygienist will also clean the difficult-to-reach parts of your mouth and will remove plaque and bacteria that have built up, which can help to prevent tooth decay, gum disease, and infection.
During the time between your dental visits, it’s important to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss daily. Brushing and flossing help to remove the bacteria that attack your teeth and gums before they can cause an infection. Use a soft-bristled manual or electric toothbrush and a toothpaste that contains fluoride to keep your oral health up. In addition, make sure you drink plenty of water, as water and saliva can help to wash away some harmful bacteria. Pay attention to any medications you may be taking and if they have dry mouth as a side effect.
Of course, if you ever have both a tooth infection and chest pain at the same time (or chest pain alone) it is critical to make an urgent appointment with your doctor, or even visit the emergency room. By explaining all your symptoms, you will give your medical team the information they need to treat you effectively.