Wisdom teeth are the rear molars that erupt sometime around the late teens or early 20s. These teeth can sometimes cause overcrowding, or can impact into the gum or neighbouring teeth. Wisdom teeth that cause problems are best removed.
Wisdom teeth are the rear molars that erupt last, sometime around the late teens or early 20s. There are normally two wisdom teeth in the upper jaw and two in the lower jaw, but some people have fewer than four or even none at all. Wisdom teeth can cause various oral health or dental problems, including overcrowding and impaction. Common problems associated with impacted wisdom teeth include gum infections and tooth decay.
Impaction is where the wisdom tooth erupts at an angle which causes it to butt against the next-door tooth (hard impaction) or the gum (soft impaction). A wisdom tooth that grows on an angle can’t contribute to chewing, which makes it useless and at times painful. It is sometimes recommended that problem wisdom teeth be removed. X-rays taken while the teeth are still erupting can show whether or not they will cause difficulties.
Symptoms of infection
The symptoms of an infection caused by a wisdom tooth include:
- Reddened, inflamed gum alongside the wisdom tooth
- Pus coming from the gum line
- The lymph glands under the jaw become enlarged and sore
- It may become difficult to open the mouth and to swallow
Common complications of wisdom teeth
In some cases, there may not be enough room in the jaw for the erupting wisdom teeth. This may stall their eruption (soft impaction), and make brushing and flossing these teeth difficult. Food and bacteria often become trapped between the wisdom tooth and its neighbouring molar tooth, which may cause tooth decay and gum infections.
Crowded wisdom teeth in the upper jaw have a tendency to lean sideways and grate against the cheek. This may cause ulcers on the cheek and chewing problems. The pressure from wisdom teeth may also force the other teeth closer together and interfere with a person’s bite. Cysts are other complications of impacted wisdom teeth. Very rarely, a tumour may develop at the site.
Antibiotics are a short-term solution
Infections caused by wisdom teeth can be treated with antibiotics, however the infection may keep coming back unless the problem teeth are removed. People with pre-existing health problems and compromised immunity may suffer complications from these infections.
Extraction (removal) of wisdom teeth is best done early
Wisdom teeth don’t usually cause any pain until the damage has already been done. Therefore extractions are best performed sooner rather than later. The roots of wisdom teeth in a teenager are still forming which makes extraction easier. The procedure may be more complicated if a person waits until later in life, when the roots of these molars are completely formed. X-rays taken while the teeth are still erupting can show whether or not they will cause problems.
Extraction of wisdom teeth
Using x-rays, your dentist or other oral health professional can determine which wisdom teeth will be functional and which ones need to be removed. Sometimes, a person may need all of the wisdom teeth extracted. This procedure can be performed using local or general anaesthetic, depending on the complexity of the problem.
If a wisdom tooth has potential to be a functioning tooth and has impacted into the gum, your dentist may only need to snip away the soft tissue to allow the tooth to completely erupt. If the whole tooth needs to be removed, it may be necessary to cut into the surrounding bone. Since a wisdom tooth is comparatively large, after an extraction the socket may need to be stitched to aid healing. It is normal for your jaw and gum to be sore, swollen and prone to bleeding for a few days after the procedure. .
One possible post-surgery complication is a dry socket (alveolar osteitis), where the site doesn’t heal as well as it should. Symptoms consist of pain and a bad odour and pain from the socket. This can be successfully treated by your dentist or other oral health professional.
Your dentist or other oral health professional will offer instructions on caring for your mouth after surgery, but general suggestions for self-care after an extraction include:
- Take painkillers if required and upon advice from your dentist or other oral health professional
- Regularly hold a mouthful of warm salty water (after meals only) and upon instruction. Be sure to wait 24 hours after the procedure before doing this.
- Eat soft, easy-to-chew foods for the next few days.
- Avoid smoking for 48 hours after the extraction
- Avoid drinking alcohol.
Some young people and adults are eligible for dental and public oral health services. Young people and adults are eligible for these services if they:
- Have a Health Care Card or are a dependant of a card holder, or receive Youth Allowance or Education Maintenance Allowance
- Are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
- Are a newly arrived refugee or asylum seeker
- Are enrolled in special or special development schools
- Are in residential care provided by the Children, Youth and Families Division of the Department of Human Services.
Where to get help
- Your dentist, oral surgeon or other oral health professional
- The Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne clinic Tel. (03) 9341 1000 or 1800 833 039 (from rural Victoria), 8.30am to 5.00pm Monday to Friday
- For emergencies contact your public oral health service or the Royal Dental Hospital emergency service Tel. (03) 9341 1000 or 1800 833 039 (from rural Victoria), 8.30am to 9.15pm Monday to Friday and 9.00am to 9.15pm on weekends and public holidays.
- Your closest community dental clinic Tel. 1300 360 054
- ADAVB (Australian Dental Association Victorian Branch) Dental Consumer Helpline Tel. (03) 8825 4600, 10am to 3pm Monday to Friday
Things to remember
- Wisdom teeth are the rear molars that erupt usually during the late teens or early 20s.
- Wisdom teeth can cause various dental problems including overcrowding of the existing teeth and impaction, either into neighbouring teeth or into the gum.
- Problematic wisdom teeth should be removed.
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Dental Health Services Victoria
Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: August 2011
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