As time goes on, our mouths go through a lot of changes. One significant dental milestone is the emergence of wisdom teeth, also known as the third molars. They’re the large teeth at the back of the mouth and are the last to grow in, typically surfacing during our late teens or early twenties. Wisdom teeth can be beneficial for chewing when they’re healthy and appear in the correct position, but if they don’t have enough space to grow or are in the wrong place, they can cause us many problems.
Turn back the clock hundreds of thousands of years to the time of our early human ancestors, and wisdom teeth played an important part in survival and helped people chew. They were handy backups when other teeth were decayed or damaged. The early human jaw was much bigger than ours and could easily accommodate wisdom teeth. The average jaw today doesn’t have sufficient space for these molars.
A problematic wisdom tooth may lead to an infection called pericoronitis, which is characterised by inflammation or swelling of the gum tissue around wisdom teeth. According to a recent study, pericoronitis affects approximately 81% of people aged 20-29 years.
So, what causes a wisdom tooth infection?
Pericoronitis can develop when wisdom teeth have failed to come through or have only partially broken through the gum. This state of affairs often leaves a flap of gum tissue. Food particles and other debris get trapped here, and it becomes an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. The space between wisdom teeth and the back of the mouth is easy to miss when brushing and flossing, so the bacteria increase in number unmolested.
An overgrowth of several types of bacteria can cause an infection in and around a wisdom tooth. Additionally, the bacteria create a film over the teeth known as dental plaque. When the food and drink we consume have a high sugar content, the bacteria in the plaque break down the sweet stuff into an acid that makes holes in teeth, which can become infected.
Signs and Symptoms of Wisdom Teeth Infection
Here are some of the symptoms you need to look out for:
Fever – the body’s natural response to infection is to raise its temperature, which can kill or damage some of the bacteria that are making you sick.
Chills – these can occur on their own or alongside fever.
Tooth pain – as anyone who has ever experienced it will tell you, tooth pain is unlike any other. It could be a dull ache or an intense throbbing inside a wisdom tooth. This could signal the presence of an infection.
Jaw or face pain – a pain in the jaw or the sides of your face could mean you have an impacted or infected wisdom tooth.
Bad breath – if you have bad breath that doesn’t go away with adequate oral hygiene, you could have an infection in a tooth or your gums. If there is a sudden flush of a foul-tasting salty liquid, there may be an infection, and the abscess at the infection site has just broken.
Tooth sensitivity – if your back teeth are sensitive to hot and cold temperatures when you bite down, and they weren’t previously.
Swollen lymph nodes – the lymphatic system is part of the body’s circulatory and immune systems. When there is an infection, lymph nodes can become hard or swell. Therefore, if you suddenly discover lumps in your neck or under your jaw that are hard when you touch them, you could have inflamed lymph nodes, indicating an infection.
Painful and swollen gums – a wisdom tooth infection starts when bacteria enter nearby gum tissue. Consequently, it becomes red, swollen and painful to the touch. The gum could also be swollen due to the presence of an abscess filled with pus.
Pus in the mouth – pus is a thick fluid containing dead tissue, cells and bacteria at an infection site. If the infection is deep inside a wisdom tooth, you won’t see pus. However, if it’s near the tooth surface or in the gum, you may break an abscess during brushing, which will make pus visible.
Bleeding gums – infected gums bleed easily. If you notice blood after eating food or brushing, you could have an infection near a wisdom tooth.
If you think you have a wisdom tooth infection, you should contact your dentist immediately.
Treatments For Wisdom Tooth Infections
A wisdom tooth infection will not go away on its own. It is essential to treat the condition immediately to stop it from getting worse. The type of treatment varies between cases according to the severity of the infection. Treatment options can include:
Oral hygiene measures – if the infection is in a small area and hasn’t spread, a thorough cleansing of the wisdom tooth and surrounding gums and an oral rinse may be sufficient. Your dentist may also recommend an antibacterial mouth rinse to help clear up the infection.
Antibiotics – if your cheek, jaw and teeth are painful, your dentist may treat the infection with antibiotics. This is usually penicillin unless you’re allergic. They may also prescribe pain relief medication.
Surgery/extraction – if the pain and inflammation are severe, the dentist can perform oral surgery to remove the gum flap or extract the wisdom tooth. According to the NHS, wisdom tooth removal is one of the most common surgical procedures in the UK.
Therefore, your dentist may advise this option to deal with a wisdom tooth infection.
Can you prevent a wisdom tooth infection?
You can’t prevent wisdom teeth from growing, but there are things you can do to avoid a wisdom tooth infection. These include:
- Having regular dental appointments and dental cleanings
- Practising good oral hygiene, including brushing your teeth twice a day for at least two minutes each time and flossing regularly.
Poor oral health and postponing your teeth straightening journey may lead to a host of other oral issues, not just infections. These can include gum recession, jaw problems and difficulty chewing.
Whether or not you have wisdom teeth, you can use affordable clear aligners to straighten your teeth and make it much easier to care for them. You can even undergo teeth straightening when wisdom teeth are coming through.
Dental Health Benefits of Clear Aligners
Did you know that you’re never too old to straighten your teeth? If you want to know more about the dental health benefits of aligners and are ready to start your clear aligner journey, get started with a free assessment today.
Charity urges us to “be proud of our smile” as new research reveals most of us have anxieties about our teeth. (2019, May 13). Oral Health Foundation. https://www.dentalhealth.org/news/charity-urges-us-to-be-proud-of-our-smile-as-new-research-reveals-most-of-us-have-anxieties-about-our-teeth#:%7E:text=The%20research%20shows%20younger%20people,self%2Dconscious%20about%20their%20smile
Renton, T. (2016, August 1). Problems with erupting wisdom teeth: signs, symptoms, and management. British Journal of General Practice. https://bjgp.org/content/66/649/e606.full
NHS website. (2021, November 18). Wisdom tooth removal. Nhs.Uk. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/wisdom-tooth-removal/
Is It Too Late to Straighten Your Teeth as an Older Adult? (2021, March 19). WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/is-it-too-late-to-straighten-your-teeth
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Kishor Kumar Pradhan