A Guide to Infected Wisdom Teeth

As we have mentioned in a previous article about impacted wisdom teeth, if you visit your dentist regularly then emergency dental treatment should not be required. Your dentist should be able to monitor the growth of your wisdom teeth through regular x-rays and determine whether the erupting teeth are likely to cause you pain in the future. Your dentist can therefore make a recommendation on whether your teeth need to be removed.

However, what happens if you are not visiting your dentist regularly and your wisdom teeth are not being monitored? What happens if you do not even know that your wisdom teeth are coming through? Are they simply going to cause you some pain, like a toothache? Or can they cause any more serious problems?

Most people are familiar with the term ‘impacted wisdom teeth’ and, broadly speaking, they know what it means. It means that, because your wisdom teeth cannot come through into your mouth naturally, they become trapped against your existing teeth and grow crooked.

Scientists believe that the reason our wisdom teeth become impacted is because our jaws have become smaller and our teeth have become bigger as we have evolved. The reason for this is the type of food that we eat. In prehistoric times, the food we ate was tougher, harsher and more abrasive. The extra chewing required meant that our jaws were much broader and stronger and that our teeth wore down more quickly. So by the time our wisdom teeth arrived, there was enough space for them to grow into.

Of course, that is no longer the case. Nowadays, our wisdom teeth are blocked by our existing teeth and this causes problems. Once the wisdom teeth have become impacted, the danger is that if they are not removed then they can become infected. If this happens, you can notice the pain intensify quite literally overnight. If you have a wisdom tooth that becomes infected, this may require immediate emergency dental treatment.

When a wisdom tooth is impacted, it can still cause pain. As the tooth struggles to emerge it can put pressure on the teeth nearby and cause them to become sore and sensitive. You may also find that your gums feel tender and that your jaw aches. Many people find these sorts of symptoms easy to ignore until their next dental appointment comes around. After all, visits to the dentist can be expensive and many of us try to avoid making too many.

However, between the tooth becoming impact and your next scheduled visit to the dentist, the wisdom tooth may become infected. A wisdom tooth can become infected for a number of ways, for example through an abscess or a cyst. However, the infections usually begin in the same way: through tooth decay.

Many patients are surprised to hear that their impacted wisdom tooth can suffer from decay. Because the wisdom tooth is beneath the gum line, people assume that it is not directly in contact with food and that it cannot be attacked by bacteria. However, that is not true.

It is still possible for food and other debris to get trapped in and around the gums around the impacted teeth. In fact, it is even more likely. As the wisdom teeth grow at strange angles, they sometimes partially push through the gum without quite erupting all the way through. This creates pockets where food can gather underneath the gum. These pockets make it harder to clean the teeth at the back of the mouth and food becomes lodged for longer periods as everyday brushing will not remove it. This creates the opportunity for bacteria to attack these food particles, which leads to the formation of acid which in turn decays the teeth. When the impacted wisdom teeth start to decay beneath the gums, this can quickly turn into an infection.

If infection gets into the wisdom teeth, there are a number of possibilities. As mentioned above, the wisdom tooth itself begins to decay. As with other teeth, the more the decay sets in then the worse the toothache becomes. The danger with decaying wisdom teeth, of course, is that the decay can spread easily to the adjacent teeth.

When the infection in the impacted tooth spreads to the gum tissue, this is known as pericoronitis. Pericoronitis is a condition whereby the gum tissue becomes inflamed and sore. It is often accompanied by bad breath and a foul taste in your mouth, which is caused by the infection.

Finally, if the infection is not treated, it can also lead to the development of an abscess or a cyst. The abscess or cyst can fill with pus and, depending on the extent of the infection, can be very painful. If the infection does spread to the gums and around the mouth, then patients may also experience soreness and swelling right across the infected side of the face.

How do you treat dental infection?

If pericoronitis is not treated by a professional dentist, the infection can develop and affect areas of the cheeks, jaw and face. In some very rare cases, infections that begin in a tooth have been known to spread towards the brain.

The treatment for an infected wisdom tooth must be two-fold. First, the infection needs to be thoroughly cleaned away from the areas around the tooth. Your dentist will remove the plaque, calculus and other debris from under the gum, around the wisdom tooth and from around the adjacent teeth.

The next aim must also be to ensure the infection does not reoccur. Therefore, in the majority of cases, the infection wisdom tooth will also need to be removed.

Clearly, a wisdom tooth which is ignored can lead to various complications in the future. However, it cannot be emphasised enough that a wisdom tooth should not be ignored for long enough so that it becomes a full-blown dental emergency. If you are visiting your dentist regularly (especially between the ages of 16 and 25 when your wisdom teeth are most likely to come through), then your dentist should be able to identify problems and make recommendations before the wisdom teeth deteriorate.

There are some schools of thought that suggest dentists are sometimes too quick to remove wisdom teeth and that many operations are performed which are unnecessary. It may be that some dentists choose to remove wisdom teeth as a precaution, rather than waiting until it is absolutely necessary. However, given the possibility of infection occurring and of damage to the nearby teeth, it is usually a valid recommendation and a precaution worth taking.


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