Wisdom teeth are the last four teeth to emerge, usually during your late teens to mid-twenties. They are sometimes called the third molars.
Wisdom teeth can be harder to clean due to their position in the back four corners of the mouth. In some people, they may not emerge at all, or only partially, and these are known as impacted wisdom teeth or partially impacted wisdom teeth.
Because wisdom teeth are harder to clean, they are more prone to cavities and infection. Bacteria feeds on the food and debris that gets stuck around the teeth band gums. Bacteria can cause cavities and infections.
In addition, impacted wisdom teeth can grow at odd angles and push against neighbouring teeth — causing pain and discomfort. Cysts, which are fluid-filled sacs that feel like hard bumps, may develop. Cysts can also lead to infections in the mouth.
Identifying infections and dental problems
Pain can occur when the new wisdom tooth starts to emerge through the gum or if the tooth gets stuck below the gum. If pain and swelling lasts more than a few days, you should make an appointment to see your dentist.
Red, swollen or bleeding gums are a clear indication that you need to see the dentist.
Bad breath or a nasty taste in the mouth can be a sign of infection. In some cases, you may even see white fluid oozing from an infection.
Any jaw pain, jaw stiffness or swelling should be investigated.
Any difficulty using your mouth, breathing or chewing should also be checked out.
Fever, chills, nausea or headaches may accompany a wisdom tooth infection. It’s important to make an appointment so your dentist can investigate the issue at the earliest opportunity as infection can spread to other parts of the mouth or your head.
Treatment of wisdom tooth infection
If you are waiting for a dental appointment, you can treat a sore jaw at home by holding an icepack (in a towel) against your painful jaw for up to 15 minutes at a time.
Salt-water rinses can also help reduce the number of bacteria in the mouth and help with infections. You can make a salt-water rinse with hot water and a few tablespoons of salt; remember to let the water cool before using it to rinse your mouth. If you are experiencing pain, you can also buy some over-the-counter pain relief as recommended by your pharmacist.
At your dental appointment, the dentist will examine your mouth, teeth and gums and is likely to X-ray the area to identify the problem.
If you have a serious infection your dentist can prescribe antibiotics and may recommend painkillers, too. Once the infection is clear, your dentist can repair the decay or damage with a filling or crown for example, or may even suggest that the tooth should be removed.
Removing a wisdom tooth
Removing wisdom teeth can be more complicated than extracting smaller teeth — but may still be done using a local anaesthetic. If necessary, they may remove this large molar in sections. It is important to follow the dentist’s advice after having a wisdom tooth removed in order to speed up the healing process and avoid further infections.
“Dry socket” is one possible complication after wisdom tooth removal. This is a painful condition which occurs when the blood clot does not form or becomes dislodged from the empty tooth socket. Without the clot in place, the nerves are exposed, and this can cause pain.
Infections and problems can still occur up to two months after a wisdom tooth has been removed so it’s important to monitor any potential signs like pain, bleeding, numbness in and around the mouth and jaw.
Again, if these symptoms persist, contact your dentist. Be aware that if you smoke or have a compromised immune system, the healing process can be slower too.
Although wisdom teeth have some specific issues relating to their position in your mouth, like all teeth you can minimise any problems by practicing good oral hygiene.
This means brushing your teeth twice daily and flossing once a day to remove the food and debris that gets left behind. It’s also important to eat a healthy diet and avoid sugary foods and drink that attack your tooth enamel and lead to cavities and fillings.
For more information, follow the links below — and remember to see your dentist if you experience any signs or symptoms that may point to a problem with a wisdom tooth.