Do you have an infected wisdom tooth?

An angular impaction of an erupting wisdom tooth. (Illustration by Katie Carman)

An angular impaction of an erupting wisdom tooth. (Illustration by Katie Carman)

Sometimes referred to as third molars, wisdom teeth usually erupt in the back of the jaw sometime between your late teens and mid-20s. A wisdom tooth can sometimes become infected, and a visit to a dentist is usually in order.

Your wisdom teeth can get infected primarily because of their position in the mouth. They're often very hard to reach with your toothbrush and floss, which means they're often neglected or not properly cleaned. This can cause food, plaque and other debris to accumulate on and between the teeth, and bacteria in these areas can grow out of control.

Sometimes, a wisdom tooth doesn't erupt fully. When this happens, the tooth may be covered partially with a flap of gum tissue, which can also trap food, plaque, and bacteria, resulting in a wisdom tooth infection.

The most common sign of a wisdom tooth infection is pain in the area. Sometimes, infected wisdom teeth can also cause pain in the entire jaw, neck and throat, as well as cause headaches. Along with the pain, a wisdom tooth infection might also cause sore throats and swollen lymph glands just under the jaw. Swelling of the face and jaw, pus drainage, and the presence of a bad smell or taste in your mouth are other common signs of infected wisdom teeth. You may also find it very difficult to chew or eat. 

According to an article in The New York Times, an estimated 60 to 70 percent of adults that still have their wisdom teeth have problems with them. If you suspect that one of your wisdom teeth is infected, you should contact your dentist as soon as possible. He or she can diagnose the infection for sure and start you on a course of treatment.

Dentists commonly prescribe antibiotics to treat infected wisdom teeth and will also usually recommend over-the-counter pain relievers and numbing gels to help relieve discomfort. Gargling warm saltwater can also help soothe discomfort and speed up the healing process.

You don't always need to have infected wisdom extracted. In some cases, the infection will clear up, and you'll no longer have any problems with the tooth. But if the infection recurs frequently or the tooth is causing problems, it may need to be extracted once the infection clears up.

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