Oral Infections Causing More Hospitalizations

Left untreated, a serious tooth abscess can eventually kill.

In 2007, Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy in Maryland, died after bacteria from an abscessed tooth spread to his brain. The case drewwidespread media attention, and his is the cautionary tale cited whenever politicians and advocates discuss access to oral health care.

But a new study suggests that deaths from these preventable infections may not be as rare as once thought and that the number of Americans hospitalized with them may be on the rise.

Studies have shown that dental problems account for hundreds of thousands of emergency room visits each year. The new analysis, published in the September issue of the Journal of Endodontics, focused on patients who had to be hospitalized because of an infection of the tip of the tooth’s root, called a periapical abscess. It is a common consequence of untreated tooth decay, and it can be dangerous if it spreads.

After reviewing national patient data from 2000 to 2008, researchers in Boston found that the people hospitalized for dental abscesses increased by more than 40 percent, to 8,141 in 2008 from 5,757 in 2000. Some 66 patients died after they were hospitalized, according to the new analysis.

“We have not had verification before of the number of deaths,” said Dr. Frank Catalanotto, chairman of the department of community dentistry and behavioral science at the University of Florida College of Dentistry, who was not involved in the report. “The seriousness of dental infections that go untreated or are treated too late is a bigger problem than we had estimated.”