Why Do I Have Jaw Swelling And What Can I Do About It?

Jaw swelling is the presence of a lump or a swollen area on the jaw. While jaw swelling is an expected and normal occurrence after a tooth extraction, particularly if the extraction was surgical or of a wisdom tooth, it may occur in relation to tooth decay or infection in the mouth. A low-level jaw swelling will resolve on its own and you may manage the pain with over the counter pain medication and application of cold to the area. However, if the swelling persists or is particularly painful, you will need to get it checked out by your dentist.

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What are the possible reasons for jaw swelling?

Jaw swelling may occur due to different reasons. They can be grouped into three main categories:

  • Presence of a cyst in the jaw: A cyst is an air-filled or fluid-filled sac which presents as a visible swelling which can be further identified by clinical examination by your dentist. Cysts are not harmful as they are benign in nature, but should be removed, since they can cause discomfort and swelling. Your dentist may carry out a clinical examination as well as imaging studies such as CT or MRI, as well as performing a biopsy in order to determine the contents of the cyst. Cysts are generally removed by surgery. Cysts are known to be caused by use of tobacco and alcohol, inadequate oral hygiene, ill-fitting dentures irritating the underlying tissues, irritation of nearby tissues by rough surfaces on the teeth, and malnutrition.
  • Presence of a dental abscess: A dental abscess is the accumulation of pus and other waste material due to infection caused by bacteria. It is caused by advanced tooth decay, a broken tooth, or dental infection spreading to the tissues surrounding the roots of the tooth. This spread of infection causes jaw swelling. It is up to your dentist to assess your situation and see which tooth the infection is originating from. Once the cause of infection has been determined, the appropriate dental intervention must be made. This may include dental restorations in order to remove tooth decay and replace decayed tooth structure, a root canal procedure in order to clean out the infection from within the tooth, or in the case of a tooth which is decayed beyond the point of saving, the tooth must be removed. Your dentist may prescribe pain medication as well as antibiotics to help the recovery process along with the dental procedure.
  • Presence of pericoronitis: Pericoronitis is infection and inflammation around a partially erupted tooth, which is commonly the wisdom tooth. It may be that the wisdom tooth is unable to erupt fully into the mouth, and remains partially erupted, with only part of the crown of the tooth present in the mouth. In this situation, with the partially uncovered crown surrounded by gum tissue, there may be accumulation of debris and bacterial action which causes infection and inflammation around the area. The gum tissue surrounding the partially erupted wisdom tooth is not as neat as the gum present around completely erupted teeth. This gum tissue may be present in the form of a loose flap, which makes it easy for food and debris to collect under it and promote bacterial action. This results in a painful condition as well as jaw swelling, accompanied by a difficulty in opening the mouth fully. If the condition is mild, it may be remedied by rinsing out the mouth with lukewarm salt water. Simply add salt to tap water which is at lukewarm temperature, mix it well and rinse out your mouth with it multiple times. Make sure to do it thoroughly. You also need to check the gum flap to see whether there is any food trapped underneath it and remove it if there is. In the case of more advanced situations, which involves jaw swelling and difficulty in opening the mouth as a result, you will need to see your dentist who will take the appropriate course of action. This usually involves using pain medication and antibiotics to manage the inflammation, infection, pain and swelling until it clears up. If the pericoronitis comes back, or remains persistent, then your dentist may have to surgically trim back the gum flap covering the wisdom tooth or remove the wisdom tooth altogether.

What you can do for jaw swelling

While you make appointments with your dentist to carry out the necessary dental procedures to treat your case, there are some things you can do on your own in order to manage the situation and help speed up the recovery process.

  • Rinse out your mouth with lukewarm salt water: By mixing salt in a glassful of water, you have an antibacterial solution to use for rinsing your mouth. When you do this regularly, you will clear out any food particles and debris from between your teeth, as well as reduce bacterial action in your mouth due to the solution's antibacterial properties. You can also use a store-bought mouthwash for this purpose, or one recommended by your dentist in particular.
  • Apply cold externally and internally: By the application of cold in the form of a cold pack applied to your face, or ice chips held in your mouth at the site of the trouble, you can help reduce inflammation and numb the pain associated with the swelling. Cold application also helps reduce swelling.
  • Take your dentist-prescribed antibiotics on time: If your dentist prescribes antibiotics in order to manage your jaw swelling, you need to take them regularly and at the prescribed times. Missing a dose will negatively impact the efficacy of the antibiotics, so you need to be careful about it in order to have the best effect possible and resolve your infection and inflammation properly.

A note to remember

While managing your situation by yourself is a good way to support the procedures carried out by your dentist, you should be responsible about your dental health and see your dentist as soon as you realize that you have a dental problem.

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