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Wisdom teeth are the third and final set of molars located at the very back of the mouth. They erupt sometime during the late teens or early 20s.1
Often the first sign that wisdom teeth are coming in is soreness or tenderness in the back of the mouth. Some people have no problems when they erupt. However, if there isn’t enough space for them to erupt, or they're in the wrong position, they can cause problems like pain, crowding, and infection.
Wisdom teeth, or third molars, are usually the last teeth to erupt. They normally erupt behind the second molars in the upper and lower jaw.
Wisdom teeth were likely useful to human ancestors, who ate tougher foods that required more chewing. These additional teeth allowed them to grind their food more effectively.2
Nowadays, most people have wisdom teeth removed because there isn't enough room in the mouth for them to erupt properly.
When they erupt only partially, they're susceptible to infection and decay. They also can crowd the other teeth, cause pain, and lead to other dental complications.
However, wisdom teeth that don't cause dental problems generally may not need to be removed.
Wisdom teeth are the last teeth to develop in your mouth. They can come in all at once or one at a time. They usually appear between the ages of 17 and 25.1
First, the primary or baby teeth start to erupt through the gums when a baby is about 6 months old. The process continues until all 20 baby teeth erupt, usually by the age of 3.3
Children begin to lose their primary teeth around age 6 as the permanent teeth gradually replace them. By age 12 to 13, most of the 28 permanent adult teeth are in place.
For around 35% of people, this marks the end of their dental development. However, for others, a third and final set of molars erupts sometime during their late teens or early 20s. This set is commonly known as the wisdom teeth.4
Most people have two upper and two lower wisdom teeth. However, it's not unusual to have fewer than four or none at all. Therefore, an adult may have between 28 and 32 permanent teeth.
Here are some common signs of wisdom tooth eruption:
One of the first signs your wisdom teeth are coming in is tender and swollen gums at the back of the mouth. It may occur on one or both sides. You may also feel or see a small red swelling at your gum line where the tooth is trying to erupt.5
When a wisdom tooth becomes trapped under the gums, it can cause inflammation and pressure on the neighboring teeth. This can trigger headaches.
If you experience headaches regularly, you may not automatically associate them with wisdom teeth. However, if you have headaches and tender gums at the back of your mouth, it's worth mentioning to your dentist.
Depending on the position of the wisdom teeth, sometimes only part of the tooth emerges from the gum tissue. As a result, bacteria and food particles can become trapped around the partially erupted tooth. Even with careful brushing and flossing, an infection called pericoronitis may develop.
Pericoronitis causes pain, swelling, and inflammation. A foul-smelling discharge, unpleasant taste, and bad breath may also occur. If you notice these symptoms, contact your dentist immediately to prevent serious complications.
As the wisdom teeth erupt, they may push against the molars next to them. This pressure can cause jaw pain or discomfort. It may feel stiff, sore, and difficult to open your mouth.
Wisdom teeth can crowd your other teeth and affect how they align. If they don't contact as they should, it can strain the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which connects the lower jaw to the skull.
TMJ disorder causes impaired oral function, facial discomfort, and headaches.6
If your wisdom teeth are positioned appropriately and have enough space to erupt, they may only cause minimal pain and discomfort as they erupt. You may have no other complications.
However, wisdom teeth are commonly considered problematic. Often, there isn’t enough space for them to erupt properly, resulting in problems with the surrounding teeth and gums. Wisdom teeth that cannot erupt fully are known as impacted wisdom teeth. Around 90% of people have at least one impacted wisdom tooth.7
If the wisdom tooth remains completely in the bone, it's considered to be fully impacted. If part of it erupts, it's partially impacted. Wisdom teeth can become impacted in the jawbone (bony impaction) or in the soft tissue (soft tissue impaction).
Left untreated, an impacted wisdom tooth can cause:
Research suggests that impacted wisdom teeth can cause inflammatory dental disease and harm other teeth and the jawbone.9 Therefore, many dentists recommend wisdom teeth removal at a young age. This is when the bone is softer (making the surgery less traumatic) and the patient is usually healthier (making postoperative healing quicker).
In the past, people commonly had their wisdom teeth removed even if they weren't causing any problems. Now, most dentists agree that it's best to leave them alone unless you experience symptoms.10
If your wisdom teeth erupt without complications, you don't need to see a dentist immediately. Instead, you can monitor the situation at home. Keep an eye out for any changes or problems, and make an appointment as needed.
Mild pain and tenderness are common symptoms that may occur with wisdom teeth. But other symptoms, including bleeding gums, especially when accompanied by jaw pain and gum swelling, may warrant an urgent dentist appointment.
Even if you don't have problems with your wisdom teeth, persistent bleeding gums are a concern. They could indicate gum disease.
Other signs that could indicate more serious dental issues include:11
If you're experiencing these symptoms, contact your dentist immediately.
Your dentist can examine your mouth and teeth, and take X-rays. They'll assess your situation and determine whether you need immediate treatment or simple monitoring at home.
Wisdom teeth are the final set of molars to erupt. They typically appear between the ages of 17 and 25.
Some signs your wisdom teeth are erupting include tender and swollen gums, headaches, and jaw pain.
Wisdom teeth can cause problems if they don't have enough space to erupt properly. Impacted wisdom teeth can cause cysts, infection, and damage to the jaw bone.
If you're experiencing problems with your wisdom teeth, contact your dentist as soon as possible. They can determine whether your wisdom teeth should be removed. Early intervention can prevent complications from wisdom teeth.
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