What is a wisdom tooth?

From babyhood to adolescence, teeth erupt in stages: first incisors, then canines, premolars and molars and, finally, wisdom teeth. The latter is often the most intriguing; what is a wisdom tooth? Dentists call them third molars, and they appear at the back of the mouth. Some people don’t experience a single problem with their wisdom teeth, but in others, they can cause pain, infection and other instances of discomfort.

When wisdom teeth are misaligned, they may position themselves horizontally, be angled toward or away from the second molars, or be angled inward or outward. Poor alignment of wisdom teeth can crowd or damage adjacent teeth, the jawbone, or nerves. Wisdom teeth also can be impacted — they are enclosed within the soft tissue and/or the jawbone or only partially break through or erupt through the gum.

Partial eruption of the wisdom teeth allows an opening for bacteria to enter around the tooth and cause an infection, which results in pain, swelling, jaw stiffness, and general illness. Partially erupted teeth are also more prone to tooth decay and gum diseas,e because their hard-to-reach location and awkward positioning makes brushing and flossing difficult.

What are “impacted wisdom teeth?”

In dental terminology an “impacted” tooth refers to a tooth that has failed to emerge fully into its expected position. This failure to erupt properly might occur because there is not enough room in the person’s jaw to accommodate the tooth, or because the angulation of the tooth is improper.

When to see a dentist

You should make an appointment to see your dentist if you’re experiencing severe pain or discomfort from your wisdom teeth. Your dentist will check your teeth and advise you on whether they need to be removed. If your dentist thinks you may need your wisdom teeth removed, they’ll usually carry out an X-ray of your mouth. This gives them a clearer view of the position of your teeth.

Why are wisdom teeth removed?

Your wisdom teeth don’t usually need to be removed if they’re impacted but aren’t causing any problems. This is because there’s no proven benefit of doing this and it carries the risk of complications. Sometimes, wisdom teeth that have become impacted or haven’t fully broken through the surface of the gum can cause dental problems. Food and bacteria can get trapped around the edge of the wisdom teeth, causing a build-up of plaque, which can lead to:

tooth decay (dental caries) – this develops when plaque begins to break down the surface of your tooth. When tooth decay becomes more advanced, it leaves holes (cavities) in the tooth, which can affect the surrounding teeth.
gum disease (also called gingivitis or periodontal disease) – this occurs when plaque releases toxins that irritate your gums, making them red, swollen and painful. Gum disease can also affect the surrounding teeth and the bone around the wisdom teeth.
pericoronitis – when plaque causes an infection of the soft tissue that surrounds the tooth.
cellulitis – a bacterial infection in the cheek, tongue or throat. abscess – when pus collects in your wisdom teeth or the surrounding tissue due to a bacterial infection.
cysts and benign growths – very rarely, a wisdom tooth that hasn’t cut through the gum develops a cyst (a fluid-filled swelling). Many of these problems can be treated with treatment such as antibiotics and antiseptic mouthwash, so removing your wisdom teeth is only recommended when other treatment hasn’t worked.