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The symptom of an abscess is swelling that occurs in the gums or lip. It usually is caused by an infection in a tooth or the bone around the tooth. Eventually it will ooze or release pus due to pressure. Causes are periodontal or gum infection, tooth decay that has gotten too deep, or trauma due to previous injury or excessive dental work.
You can tell when you have an abscess if you experience any swelling or the onset of a sore, dull, throbbing pain, even if it is not constant. If an abscess is not taken care of immediately, the swelling can get worse and seem to "blow up" fast enough to not only be a major inconvenience but actually dangerous, and in some cases life threatening.
Like any abscess it can be drained and usually with the assistance of an antibiotic it can be controlled and reversed, usually as fast as it comes on. After the swelling goes down then the follow up care necessary can be done on a more routine basis.
The pain of an abscess is far worse than the discomfort or expense of visiting your dentist. To avoid any such events from catching you by surprise, it is advisable to get a complete dental exam every 1-2 years if you are an adult, depending on your situation.
If you are planning to go on a trip and haven't had a recent exam it is strongly recommended that you get things checked. Stress and altitude changes bring on abscesses that were before controlled and walled off by the body. Talking about ruining your trip, an abscess or tooth ache will certainly do that and more.
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