Abscess vs. Cyst: Know the Difference

Feb 27, 2022 | General Dentistry, Oral Surgery

Abscess vs. Cyst: Know the Difference

When people think about oral health, the focus is usually on tooth concerns, such as decay, cavities, tooth sensitivity, and wisdom teeth. However, there are two other main oral health issues that often get lumped together: cysts and abscesses. While dental cysts and a dental abscess do share some similarities, they are actually two different conditions. The New Leaf Rohnert Park team explains the dental cyst vs. abscess difference and how important it is to seek immediate dental cyst and abscess treatment.

Key Takeaways

  • Dental abscess: buildup of pus in teeth or gums due to infection, causing pain, swelling, sensitivity, fever, and other symptoms.
  • Types of dental abscesses: gingival, periodontal, and periapical.
  • Dental cyst: closed pocket filled with air, soft tissue, or fluid near teeth, often asymptomatic, but can cause pain, tooth movement, numbness, and other symptoms.
  • Types of dental cysts: periapical, odontogenic keratocystic, and dentigerous cyst.
  • Difference: Abscess is an infection with pus, while a cyst is a closed pocket often caused by tooth positioning or other factors, and can lead to an abscess.


What is a dental abscess?

A dental abscess is a buildup of pus that forms inside the teeth or gums. When plaque builds upon the surface of your teeth, it allows bacteria to spread into the soft tissue of the tooth and gums. When this happens, the bacteria within the plaque causes an infection. This can result in the production and accumulation of pus within the tissue.



The main symptom experienced with a dental abscess is pain. This pain may be throbbing and can grow in intensity. In some cases, the pain can radiate into the ear, jawbone, and neck. Other symptoms you can experience with a dental abscess include:

  • Sensitivity to hot and cold food and liquids
  • A foul taste in the mouth
  • Facial swelling and/or redness
  • Swelling and red gums
  • A small, yellow or white spot on the gums
  • A fever
  • A general unwell feeling
  • Difficulty opening the mouth or chewing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sleep disruptions, often due to pain


Types of dental abscesses

There are three main types of dental abscesses based on the location of the infection. These types include gingival, periodontal, and periapical.

Gingival abscess

A gingival abscess, also known as a gum abscess, occurs in the outer gum tissue surrounding your teeth. It often appears as a white or yellow spot on the surface of the gums. As the bacterial infection increases, the pus can cause the spot to grow and become swollen, often resembling a pimple on the gum. The abscess tries to release the pressure and treat itself as the pressure builds. As this happens, the bacteria can eat away at the gum tissue and into the tooth and supporting bone. When it creates these tunnels or fistulas, you may notice a small hole in the gum tissue.

Periodontal abscess

A periodontal abscess is a pocket of pus that develops in the deep soft tissue pocket between the gum tissue and the teeth. In some cases, a dark red lump may appear near the base of the tooth. However, most of the time, there are no visible symptoms. As the infection spreads, it can spread to the surrounding tissue, into the tooth, and the jawbone.

Periapical abscess

When bacteria enter a tooth, often through a crack or severe decay, the soft tissue within the tooth becomes infected. As the infection grows within the tooth, it spreads down to the tooth root, where an abscess forms. In most cases, this type of abscess shows no visible signs.


What is a dental cyst?

A dental cyst is a closed pocket filled with air, soft tissue, or fluid. It develops in and around the teeth, often near to root of the tooth. Unlike an abscess, a dental cyst is not an infection. Cysts typically form at the roots of dead or dying teeth, near teeth that are improperly positioned or impacted, or in those diagnosed with Gorlin’s syndrome. If a dental cyst is left unchecked and continues to grow, it can put pressure on the bone structures of the affected tooth, leading to tooth damage. In many cases, a cyst can lead to an infection, thus becoming an abscess.



Dental cysts can develop and grow for years without causing any signs or symptoms. Many only learn they have a cyst during a routine dental exam with an oral x-ray. However, cysts can cause symptoms that can include:

  • Acute pain or pressure within the tooth or gum line
  • Gaps between teeth or unexplained tooth movement
  • Loose teeth
  • Difficulty with chewing and swallowing
  • A sore throat or hoarseness
  • Numbness in the mouth or face when a cyst puts pressure on a nerve


Types of cysts

There are three main types of dental cysts: periapical cyst, odontogenic keratocystic, and dentigerous cyst.

Periapical cyst

The periapical cyst, also known as a radicular cyst, is the most common dental cyst. It develops as the result of the death of the pulp tissue within a tooth, causing inflammation and the release of toxins towards the root tip. This causes cyst development.

Odontogenic keratocyst

An odontogenic keratocyst, also known as a keratocystic odontogenic tumor, is a slow-growing cyst typically found in the lower back mandible area of the jaw, near the wisdom teeth. They require surgical removal but often recur even after treatment.

Dentigerous cyst or follicular cyst

This type of cyst occurs in the soft tissue surrounding a tooth before the eruption. These cysts most often occur around impacted wisdom teeth that cannot fully erupt.


Difference between an abscess and a cyst

When you compare an abscess and a cyst, you can see that they can cause similar symptoms and, if left untreated, can cause damage to the teeth and surrounding tissue. The main differences between an abscess and a cyst are the fact that a cyst occurs due to the formation of abnormal cells while an abscess is the result of a direct infection. An abscess grows quickly as the infection spreads, while a cyst grows slowly over time, often not causing any symptoms.


Treatment options

Treatment for dental abscesses and cysts depends on the nature of the infection, the location of the cyst, and the symptoms you may be experiencing. With a dental abscess, immediate treatment is necessary to remove the infection. This can include draining the abscess, prescribing antibiotics, performing a root canal to eliminate infection and save the tooth, or tooth extraction if necessary.

For cysts, treatment depends on the type of cyst. If the cyst is due to a dead tooth, a root canal will often allow the cyst to repair itself. In other cases, a surgical cyst is often necessary.


The dangers of ignoring an abscess or a cyst

If you suspect a dental abscess or cyst, you should seek immediate attention. Either condition, if left untreated, can lead to serious oral health issues, including problems with mouth function, a weakened jawbone, and tooth loss. At New Leaf Rohnert Park, we are here to address all your dental needs, including the immediate treatment of dental abscesses and cysts. If you have any questions or need to schedule an immediate appointment, visit us online or contact the office today at (707) 586-1549 to schedule an appointment.

Eddie Kuo, DDS

Eddie Kuo, DDS

Owner @ New Leaf Rohnert Park

Professional Degrees

University of California at Davis – BS in Biological Sciences with emphasis in Neurology, Physiology, Behaviors

University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, Doctorate of Dental Surgery

State University of New York at Buffalo – General Practice Residency at Erie County Medical Center

Front Office Staff On Phone Taking Appointment

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