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Colleagues for Excellence
Published for the dental professional community by the American Association of Endodontists

Summer 2006

Welcome to ENDODONTICS: Colleagues for Excellence…the newsletter covering the latest in endodontic treatment,
research and technology. We hope you enjoy our coverage on the full scope of options available for patients through endodontic
treatment and that you find this information valuable in your practice. All issues of this ENDODONTICS newsletter are available on
the AAE Web site at www.aae.org, and cover a range of topics on the art and science in endodontic treatment.

E

ndodontic infections range from being asymptomatic to
life threatening. This issue of ENDODONTICS: Colleagues for
Excellence reviews the objectives of endodontic treatment in
managing infected root canal systems, specifically addressing
antibiotics and their impact on patients. Guidelines for the
prescription of specific antibiotics are provided for use as an
adjunct to clinical treatment of the patient.

Figure 1: Patient with cellulitis caused
by premolar root canal infection.

The Nature of Endodontic Infections
Root canal infections are polymicrobial infections
characterized by mostly anaerobic bacteria and some
facultative bacteria (1). A tooth with an infected necrotic
pulp becomes a reservoir of infection isolated from the
patient’s immune response. Eventually, bacteria and bacterial
by-products will produce a periradicular inflammatory
response. With microbial invasion of periradicular
tissues, an abscess and cellulitis may develop. The
inflammatory response may give rise to both protective
and immunopathogenic effects; it may also be destructive
to surrounding tissue and contribute to adverse signs and
symptoms. Severe infections may develop depending on
the pathogenicity of the microorganisms involved and the
resistance of the host (Figure 1).
The spread of infection and the inflammatory response will
continue until the source of the irritation is removed.

While normal flora may prevent pathogenic organisms from
invading the tissues and causing disease, they may become
opportunistic pathogens if they gain access to tissues not
previously colonized. Such is the case when normal oral
flora gain access to the pulp cavity and periradicular tissues.
Microbes associated with endodontic disease include bacteria,
fungi and viruses (1).
Clinical signs and symptoms of an infection are the result
of damage to the tissues caused by the microbe and the
inflammatory response produced by the host. Patient
evaluation and the appropriate diagnosis/treatment of
the source of an infection are of utmost importance.

Clinical Treatment of Endodontic Infections
Soft tissue swelling of endodontic origin should be
incised for drainage (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Intraoral drainage of purulent exudate.

In most cases, a drain placed in the incision for 24-48
hours will allow for adequate drainage (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Intraoral
drain sutured into
incision for drainage.

However, effective treatment of endodontic infections
also includes removal of the reservoir of infection
by either endodontic treatment or tooth extraction.
Successful management of the infected root canal
system requires chemomechanical debridement of the
root canal system. Three to 12 species of bacteria can
usually be cultured from infected root canals
Figure 4: Cultivation
of polymicrobial
endodontic infection.

and pulpal debris from the infected root canal
system. This establishes a favorable condition
for periradicular inflammation to resolve.
When a patient has signs and symptoms associated
with a severe endodontic infection (Table 1), the root
canal system should be filled with calcium hydroxide,
and the access opening sealed to prevent coronal
leakage of bacteria from the oral cavity. If there is
continuous drainage, the canal may be left open
until the next day. Drainage allows the accumulated
irritants and inflammatory mediators to decrease to
a level where a healthy patient can initiate healing.
However, leaving the tooth open for drainage for
a longer time allows gross contamination with no
benefit to the patient.
Table 1. Indications for Adjunctive Antibiotics

  • Fever > 100° F
  • Malaise
  • Lymphadenopathy
  • Trismus
  • Increased Swelling
  • Cellulitis
  • Osteomyelitis
  • Persistent Infection

A regimen of antibiotics is not indicated in an otherwise
healthy patient for a small localized swelling without
systemic signs and symptoms of infection or spread of
infection (2-6) (Tables 1, 2). Swellings increasing
in size or associated with cellulitis should be
incised for drainage and adjunctive antibiotics
administered.
Table 2. Conditions Not Requiring Adjunctive Antibiotics

1.  Pain without signs and symptoms of infection
a.  Symptomatic irreversible pulpitis
b.  Acute periradicular periodontitis

2.  Teeth with necrotic pulps and a radiolucency
3.  Teeth with a sinus tract (chronic
periradicular abscess)

(Figure 4); it is important that debridement of the root
canal be accomplished aseptically using rubber dam
isolation to prevent further microbial contamination.

4.  Localized fluctuant swellings

The objectives for endodontic treatment are
removal of the microbes, their by-products

2

ENDODONTICS: Colleagues for Excellence

“Magic Bullets” Versus Resistant Bacteria
The term “antibiotic” is used for chemicals that
are produced either by bacteria and/or synthetic
antimicrobials produced in a laboratory that kill
or inhibit the growth of bacteria. The discovery of
penicillin by Fleming in 1928 revolutionized health
care for the treatment of bacterial infections such
as tuberculosis, pneumonia and syphilis. Because
antibiotics are relatively harmless to the host, they
can be used to treat infections including those of
endodontic origin. However, antibiotics may have
adverse effects by altering the normal flora and by
producing allergic reactions. The interaction of
antibiotics with other drugs may also produce harmful
side effects or render them ineffective.
Antibiotics have been called “magic bullets” because
they target the organisms producing disease.
Unfortunately, the wide use of antibiotics has fostered
the selection of resistant bacteria. Antibiotics alter
the natural balance of normal flora by selecting for
organisms that are resistant. Resistant genes are
transferred vertically to all daughter cells. In addition,
resistant genes can be transferred horizontally to other
strains of bacteria by transduction, transformation and
conjugation. Thus, strains of bacteria never exposed
to the antibiotic may acquire resistance without ever
coming in contact with the antibiotic.
The selection of resistant organisms is enabled when
a low dose of an antibiotic is administered, when
antibiotics are taken for long periods of time or
through noncompliance by patients. Another source
of resistant organisms is from the use of low doses of
antibiotics in agricultural feed and fertilizers. A prime
example of acquired resistance is Staphylococcus
aureus, which now has resistance to multiple
antibiotics including vancomycin. In addition,
the development of resistance by bacteria
because of inappropriate prescriptions
raises questions and concerns for health care
workers.

additional resistant organisms. Empirical selection
of an antibiotic without susceptibility tests is based
on knowledge of the organisms usually involved in
endodontic infections. Antibiotics are indicated when
there is systemic involvement or evidence of spread of
infection. Signs and symptoms include: fever above 100
degrees Fahrenheit, malaise, cellulitis, unexplained
trismus, lymphadenopathy and swelling beyond a
simple localized mucosal enlargement.
Systemic administration of the appropriate antibiotic
dosage is usually for five to seven days. Clinical signs
and symptoms will usually diminish in two to four days
after diagnosis and removal of the cause of the infection.
Patients should continue to take the antibiotic for an
additional two to three days to prevent rebound of the
infections. Noncompliance by a patient not taking the
prescribed antibiotic regimen may allow a rebound of the
infection. A seven-day prescription is usually adequate.
Incision for drainage is important to remove purulent
material consisting of bacteria, bacterial by-products,
disintegrated inflammatory cells, enzymes (spreading
factors) and other inflammatory mediators.
Drainage improves circulation to the infected tissues
and improves delivery of a minimum inhibitory
concentration of the antibiotic to the area. Because
endodontic infections are polymicrobial, no single
antibiotic is likely to be effective against all the strains
of infecting bacteria. However, it is likely that if an
antibiotic is effective against several of the strains of
bacteria, it will disrupt the microbial ecosystem.
One of the more common side effects of antibiotic
therapy is diarrhea, which results from the antibiotic
disrupting the normal balance of intestinal flora.
Antibiotic-associated colitis/pseudomembranous
colitis has been associated with the use of many
antibiotics, but only rarely associated with dental
therapy (7). Patients requiring extraoral drainage or
hospitalization should be referred to an oral surgeon
(Figure 5).

Responsible Use of Antibiotics in
Endodontic Treatment
Antibiotics are used in addition to appropriate
treatment to aid the host defenses in the elimination
of remaining bacteria. Narrow-spectrum antibiotics
should be the first choice to be prescribed because
broad-spectrum antibiotics produce more alterations
in the normal gastrointestinal tract and select for

ENDODONTICS: Colleagues for Excellence

Figure 5: Extraoral drain sutured into incision for
drainage.

3

Some patients, especially immunocompromised
patients, are at high risk for infections, and a culture
of the infecting organisms with susceptibility testing
may be indicated. Identification of the bacteria and
results of susceptibility tests may take several days
to a couple of weeks, depending on the microbes
involved in the infection. Good communication with
a laboratory will ensure that the sample is properly
collected, transported, cultured and identified. If
there is any question about the patient being
medically compromised, or if the patient’s
condition deteriorates, referral should be
considered.

Types of Antibiotics and
Recommended Dosages
Based on recent antibiotic susceptibility tests,
penicillin VK is the drug of choice for periradicular
abscesses (8, 9) (Figure 6).
Efficacy of Antibiotics
100%

100

90%
80%
70%

91

96
89

85

60%

Percentage

50%
40%

45

30%
20%
10%

higher and more sustained serum levels than penicillin
VK. Because of these traits, amoxicillin is often used
for antibiotic prophylaxis of patients that are medically
compromised (11, 12). Amoxicillin may be used for
serious odontogenic infections, however, its extended
spectrum may select for additional resistant strains of
bacteria. The usual oral dosage for amoxicillin is 1,000
mg loading dose followed by 500 mg every eight hours
for five to seven days.
The combination of amoxicillin with clavulanate
(Augmentin ) was the most effective antibiotic
combination in recent susceptibility tests (8, 9).
Clavulanate is a competitive inhibitor of the betalactamase enzyme produced by bacteria to inactivate
penicillin. The usual oral dosage for amoxicillin with
clavulanate is 1,000 mg loading dose followed by 500
mg every eight hours for five to seven days.
TM

Clindamycin is effective against gram-positive
facultative microorganisms and anaerobes. Clindamycin
is a good choice if a patient is allergic to penicillin
or a change in antibiotic is indicated. Penicillin and
clindamycin have been shown to produce good results
in treating odontogenic infections (13). Clindamycin
is well distributed throughout most body tissues and
reaches a concentration in bone approximating that of
plasma. The oral adult dosage for serious endodontic
infections is a 600 mg loading dose followed by 300 mg
every six hours for five to seven days.

0%
Penicillin VK

Amoxicillin

Amoxicillinclavulanate

Clindamycin

Clarithromycin

Metronidazole

Figure 6: Antibiotic susceptibility for bacteria from endodontic
infections.

It is effective against facultative and anaerobic
microorganisms associated with endodontic infections.
Penicillin VK remains the antibiotic of choice because
of its effectiveness, low toxicity and low cost. However,
about 10 percent of the population will give a history
of allergic reactions to penicillin. To achieve a
steady serum level with penicillin VK, it should be
administered every four to six hours (10). A loading
dose of 1,000 mg of penicillin VK should be orally
administered, followed by 500 mg every four to six
hours for five to seven days. Following debridement of
the root canal system and drainage of facial swellings,
significant improvement of the infection should be seen
within 48-72 hours.

Amoxicillin is an analogue of penicillin that is rapidly
absorbed and has a longer half-life. This is reflected in

4

Metronidazole may be used in combination with
penicillin or clindamycin. If a patient’s symptoms
worsen 48-72 hours after initial treatment and the
prescription of either penicillin or clindamycin,
metronidazole may be added to the original
antibiotic. It is of utmost importance to review
the diagnosis and treatment to confirm
that the management of the infection has
been appropriate. Metronidazole is a synthetic
antimicrobial agent that is bactericidal and has activity
against anaerobes, but lacks activity against aerobes
and facultative anaerobes. Susceptibility tests have
shown significant numbers of bacteria resistant to
metronidazole (8, 9). It is important that the patient
continue to take penicillin or clindamycin, which are
effective against the facultative bacteria and those
resistant to metronidazole. The usual oral dosage for
metronidazole is a 1,000 mg loading dose followed by
500 mg every six hours for five to seven days. When
patients fail to respond to treatment, consultation with a
specialist is recommended.

ENDODONTICS: Colleagues for Excellence

Erythromycin is a macrolide that has traditionally
been prescribed for patients allergic to penicillin;
however, it is not effective against anaerobic bacteria.
Erythromycin is no longer recommended for treatment
of endodontic infections because of this poor spectrum
of activity and significant gastrointestinal upset.
Clarithromycin and azithromycin are macrolides
that have a spectrum of activity that includes some
anaerobes involved in endodontic infection and offer
improved pharmacokinetics. Food slows down but
does not affect the bioavailability of clarithromycin.
Food and heavy metals may inhibit the absorption
of azithromycin. The oral dosage for clarithromycin
is a 500 mg loading dose followed by 250 mg every
12 hours for five to seven days. The oral dosage for
azithromycin is a 500 mg loading dose followed by 250
mg once a day for five to seven days.
Cephalosporins are usually not indicated for the
treatment of endodontic infections. First-generation
cephalosporins do not have activity against the
anaerobes usually involved in endodontic infections.
Second-generation cephalosporins have some efficacy
for anaerobes, however, there is a possibility of crossallergenicity of cephalosporins with penicillin.
Doxycycline occasionally may be indicated when
the above antibiotics are contraindicated. However,
many strains of bacteria have become resistant to the
tetracyclines.

The AAE Public and Professional Affairs Committee
and the Board of Directors developed this issue
with special thanks to the author, Dr. J. Craig
Baumgartner, and reviewers, Drs. James A. Abbott,
Gerald C. Dietz Jr., David C. Hansen and Louis E.
Rossman.

The information in this newsletter is
designed to aid dentists. Practitioners
must use their best professional
judgment, taking into account the needs
of each individual patient when making
diagnoses/treatment plans. The AAE
neither expressly nor implicitly warrants
any positive results, nor expressly nor
implicitly warrants against any negative
results, associated with the application
of this information. If you would like
more information, call your endodontic
colleague or contact the AAE by e-mail at
info@aae.org.

Ciprofloxacin is a quinilone antibiotic that is not
effective against anaerobic bacteria usually found in
endodontic infections. With a persistent infection it may
be indicated if culture and sensitivity tests demonstrate
the presence of susceptible organisms.

Conclusion
The use of improved culturing and molecular methods
now detect the presence of many more organisms in
endodontic infections than previously determined. It
is important that clinicians understand the nature of
polymicrobial endodontic infections and realize the
importance of removing the reservoir of infection
by endodontic treatment or tooth extraction. The
prescription of antibiotics should be considered
adjunctive to the clinical treatment of the patient;
antibiotics should not be substituted for root
canal debridement and drainage of purulence
from a periradicular swelling.

ENDODONTICS: Colleagues for Excellence

5

ENDODONTICS: Colleagues for Excellence

References
1. Baumgartner JC, Hutter JW, Siqueira JF. Endodontic Microbiology and Treatment of Infections. In: Cohen S, Hargreaves KM, editors.
Pathways of the Pulp. Ninth ed. St. Louis: Mosby; 2006.
2. Fouad AF, Rivera EM, Walton RE. Penicillin as a supplement in resolving the localized acute apical abscess. Oral Surg 1996;81(5):590595.
3. Henry M, Reader A, Beck M. Effect of penicillin on postoperative endodontic pain and swelling in symptomatic necrotic teeth. J
Endodon 2001;27(2):117-123.
4. Nagle D, Reader A, Beck M, Weaver J. Effect of systemic penicillin on pain in untreated irreversible pulpitis. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral
Pathol Oral Radiol Endod 2000;90:636-40.
5. Pickenpaugh L, Reader A, Beck M, Meyers WJ, Peterson LJ. Effect of Prophylactic amoxicillin on endodontic flare-up in asymptomatic,
necrotic teeth. J Endodon 2001;27(1):53-56.
6. Walton RE, Chiappinelli J. Prophylactic penicillin: effect on posttreatment symptoms following root canal treatment of asymptomatic
periapical pathosis. J Endodon 1993;19(9):466-470.
7. Jaimes EC. Lincocinamides and the incidence of antibiotic-associated colitis. Clin Therapeu 1991;13(2):270-280.
8. Baumgartner JC, Xia T. Antibiotic susceptibility of bacteria associated with endodontic abscesses. J Endodon 2003;29(1):44-47.
9. Khemaleelakul S, Baumgartner JC, Pruksakorn S. Identification of bacteria in acute endodontic infections and their antimicrobial
susceptibility. Oral Surg Oral Med Oral Pathol 2002;94(6):746-55.
10. Pallasch TJ. Pharmacokinetic principles of antimicrobial therapy. Periodontol 2000 1996;10:5-111.
11. ADA. Antibiotic prophylaxis for dental patients with total joint replacements. JADA 2003;134(July):895-899.
12. Dajani AS, et al. Prevention of bacterial endocarditis: Recommendations by the American Heart Association. JAMA
1997;277(22):1794-1801.
13. Gilmore WC, Jacobus NV, Gorbach SL, Doku HC. A prospective double-blind evaluation of penicillin versus clindamycin in the
treatment of odontogenic infections. J Oral Maxillofac Surg 1988;46:1065-1070.

Did you enjoy this issue of ENDODONTICS? Did the information have a positive impact on your practice?
Are there topics you would like ENDODONTICS to cover in the future? We want to hear from you!
Send your comments and questions to the American Association of Endodontists at the address below.

ENDODONTICS: Colleagues for Excellence
American Association of Endodontists
211 E. Chicago Ave., Suite 1100
Chicago, IL 60611-2691
info@aae.org
www.aae.org


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