Wisdom teeth are the last adult teeth to erupt from the jaw. Their location at the back of the mouth means an increased risk of problems from impaction or infection. Many people have their wisdom teeth removed, while others keep them. Here’s the low-down on wisdom teeth.
What Are Wisdom Teeth?
Wisdom teeth are the third and final molars to erupt, located in the top and bottom of each jaw at the back of the mouth. In most cases, they don’t erupt until people are in their late teens or early twenties.
The term wisdom may have something to do with the fact that at that age, an individual should be more mature and show some signs of wisdom. However, no one really knows for sure where the term wisdom teeth really comes from.
Healthy wisdom teeth that don’t cause crowding in the jaw need not be removed; they help maintain proper tooth alignment and give you additional chewing space. However, most people having large teeth, a small jaw, or both, can experience problems when the wisdom teeth erupt.
Discomfort is normal as the wisdom teeth are erupting, but you should nevertheless visit your dentist when they do erupt since they can cause significant alignment problems.
Problems caused by Wisdom Teeth
Wisdom teeth can cause a number of problems, especially if they become impacted or infected.
Here are some examples:
Wisdom teeth can increase the risk of crowding in the jaw. They are also more difficult to clean because they are so far back in the mouth, which means they are more susceptible to decay than other more accessible teeth.
Some people don’t have enough room in the jaw for their wisdom teeth. When this happens, the tooth may become impacted (remain under the gum line and not erupt normally).
Impacted wisdom teeth may result in swelling and tenderness. Sometimes people develop cysts from impacted wisdom teeth.
Pericornitis, an infection of the tissue surrounding the crown of a partially erupted teeth, may also result from impacted wisdom teeth. The partially erupted tooth has a flap of tissue over the top that can trap food debris and result in an infection.
Symptoms of pericornitis include a bad smell or taste in your mouth, pus around the tooth at the gum line, enlarged glands in the neck and swelling on that side of the face.
How to Handle a Painful Wisdom Tooth
Painful wisdom teeth usually result from impaction or an infection and can be treated in several ways. If you have an infection, carefully clean underneath the flap over the tooth. Then rinse several times a day with warm salt water.
If the symptoms persist, you may need professional treatment, so plan a visit to your dentist as soon as possible.
An ice pack may also help relieve pain from a wisdom tooth; make sure to protect the skin with a towel.
Wisdom Tooth Removal
If you develop pain, an infection, cysts or tumors because of your wisdom teeth, the tooth or teeth may need to be removed.
Other reasons to remove wisdom teeth include damage to adjoining teeth, gum disease or tooth decay that is too serious to be repaired easily.
Wisdom teeth may also need to be removed prior to having braces. Ideally, wisdom teeth should be removed before the age of 20; they will have less developed roots – which makes the removal easier – and are less likely to develop complications from the extraction.
The routine procedure may be performed by a dentist or an oral surgeon and is performed under local anesthetics.
The tooth may be removed intact or in sections, depending on whether or not it is embedded in the bone. Sometimes the dentist will need to make an incision in the gum to access the tooth.
A certain amount of bleeding and swelling are normal after the procedure. Ice can help relieve both swelling and discomfort.
Most people have no problems with the surgery, but occasionally the patient develops a dry socket if the blood clot over the surgical area breaks down too soon.
A dry socket is painful and treatment usually involves medicated dressings, antibiotics and pain medication. Very rarely, people will develop a numb area near the surgical site.
Keeping Your Wisdom Teeth
Removing wisdom teeth is not required for your dental health in some cases. If the wisdom teeth erupt normally and aren’t causing problems, they can remain – they will help you chew your food.
However, you should have your wisdom teeth inspected by a dentist at least once a year to make sure you aren’t developing any problems. Periodic X-rays can show if there are any problems in the jawbone or under the gum line.
You should also give your wisdom extra attention when flossing and brushing. Make sure you have a professional cleaning at least twice a year.
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While wisdom teeth don’t necessarily confer real wisdom on their owner, they can be problematic. Regular dental examinations can help head off problems. If you elect to keep your wisdom teeth, remember that the level of care you give your teeth can help prevent many problems. Your dentist is a good partner and can advise you in this situation.