Definition & Overview

Wisdom teeth, otherwise referred to in dental terms as the third molars, are the teeth at the very back of the mouth that usually emerge between the ages 17 and 21, hence the term “wisdom”.

The problem with wisdom teeth is that by the time they erupt (emerge), there is little space left for them to do so. Thus, they may erupt just partially or not at all, resulting in a condition called impacted wisdom tooth.

An impacted wisdom tooth can result in a variety of problems, such as infections, bad breath, inflammation, and a significant amount of pain. Impacted wisdom teeth may also damage the tooth beside them.

However, wisdom teeth don’t always cause problems. A perfect set of teeth is 32. Some people have jaws that can fit a perfect set easily, so they’ll have no problems with wisdom teeth. Only those whose jaws are too small and can only accommodate a set of 28 teeth comfortably will have a problem with wisdom teeth.

Cause of Condition

The structure of a person’s jaw determines if he or she will have wisdom teeth problems. As earlier mentioned, if the jawbone can accommodate a full set of teeth comfortably, then there shouldn’t be any problem at all.

A wisdom tooth will only become impacted if it has trouble emerging from the gums. Partially erupted wisdom teeth will trap food that will attract bacteria. When this happens, the very least of your problems will be bad breath.

Bacteria are the primary cause of tooth decay and gum infections. The latter is the main concern because the area is in close proximity to the brain. If the infection reaches the brain, it will cause another set of problems and many of them are life-threatening conditions.

Key Symptoms

An impacted wisdom tooth can result in a variety of symptoms, such as bad breath, pain, inflammation, bleeding gums, and difficulty opening the mouth. These symptoms may come and go but will never be resolved until the problem is not corrected. In fact, the symptoms may even get worse if complications arise.

The most common complication of an impacted wisdom tooth is that it will damage or cause misalignment of the teeth beside it. As a wisdom tooth emerges, it will put pressure on the second molar, forcing it to misalign, place pressure on other teeth, or damage it. Once the second molar has been damaged, it will be more prone to decay.

Although rare, it is possible for a cyst to form. A wisdom tooth develops inside a sac. If fluid builds up inside the sac, it can form a cyst that may even develop into a non-cancerous tumor.

One of the most dreaded wisdom tooth problems is the development of gum disease called pericoronitis. This condition is not only painful but can also result in serious medical conditions if not treated promptly.

Who to See & Types of Treatment Available

If you’re experiencing any problem with your teeth, especially a wisdom tooth, you should see a dentist as soon as possible. A wisdom tooth problem can easily be identified if the rest of your teeth are healthy, because wisdom teeth only appear at the age of 17 and above.

Most dentists will recommend that the impacted wisdom tooth be extracted. However, prior to recommending such procedure, the dentist will examine your teeth and gums and have you undergo an x-ray to view the condition of the impacted tooth and any damage it may have already caused.

Extracting a wisdom tooth may not be advisable for some people, especially those with medical conditions that may increase the risk of surgery. It’s important that your dentist is aware of your medical condition so that he or she can decide on the best course of action.

If you’ve been visiting your dentist on a regular basis, it’s likely that the dentist will note the eruption or possible eruption of a wisdom tooth, even when you’re not experiencing any symptoms. Some dentists tend to favor extracting a wisdom tooth even when it doesn’t cause any symptoms.

There is still a debate in the dental community on whether such action is actually recommended. Some believe that if the condition is asymptomatic (no symptoms), it should be left alone. Dentists who believe that the tooth should be extracted do so as a preventive measure.


  • Buttaravoli P, Leffler SM, eds. Dental pain, pericoronitis. Minor Emergencies. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2012:chap 46.

  • American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons

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