Wisdom teeth, sometimes called third molars, may emerge in a person’s late teens, early 20s, or later in life.
A person’s mouth is usually not large enough to accommodate the four additional wisdom teeth.
As a result, wisdom teeth frequently erupt at angles, pushing against neighboring teeth or only partially emerging above the gumline.
Each of these issues increases the risk of the tooth becoming infected.
Below, we look into the causes and symptoms of a wisdom tooth infection. We also describe some treatments and home remedies.
Below are some common symptoms of a wisdom tooth infection:
Below are some possible causes of an infection in a wisdom tooth or the spot where it once was.
Wisdom tooth impaction
A wisdom tooth may emerge only partially above the gumline or emerge at an angle. Dentists refer to this as impaction.
Impaction may occur if there is not enough space in the mouth for the tooth to emerge fully, in a situation called overcrowding.
Food debris and plaque can accumulate around a partially erupted wisdom tooth, making it susceptible to infection.
A cavity in a wisdom tooth can cause it to become infected.
Because the wisdom teeth sit at the back of the mouth, they can be more difficult to clean than other teeth. Flossing around the wisdom teeth may be particularly difficult.
As a result, these teeth are especially susceptible to cavities.
Wisdom tooth extraction
Wisdom tooth extraction involves removing the teeth. It is a common procedure for treating or preventing problems caused by teeth that are emerging or partially erupted.
An infection can develop at the site of the extraction. A 2014 retrospective study found, for example, that 8.4% of people who had wisdom teeth extracted went on to experience minor complications, such as:
- bleeding after surgery
- temporary nerve damage
- dry socket, which occurs when a blood clot does not form at the site of the extraction
Pain in the teeth or gums may not indicate an infection. It can be a symptom of:
- gum disease, or gingivitis
- gum recession
- poor brushing or flossing techniques
- a cavity
- worn tooth enamel
- tooth grinding, or bruxism
- a cracked tooth
- worn dental fillings
- sinus problems
If tooth or gum pain lasts more than a few days, make an appointment with a dentist. They will work to identify the cause of the pain and recommend appropriate treatments.
A wisdom tooth infection sometimes leads to other health problems. Below, we describe some of these complications.
A dental cyst is a sac of fluid that forms near a tooth, and a cyst may result from a wisdom tooth impaction or infection.
Over time, cysts can affect the roots of nearby teeth, and they may even damage or weaken the jawbone.
Severe or recurrent infections
A severe wisdom tooth infection can spread throughout the mouth, jaw, and upper respiratory tract.
In rare cases, the infection travels to the bloodstream. This is a serious health issue known as sepsis.
Many dentists remove wisdom teeth at the first sign of trouble to avoid the risk of severe or recurrent infections.
The best treatment for a wisdom tooth infection partly depends on the cause and severity of the infection.
However, treatment usually involves:
- a thorough cleansing of the affected wisdom tooth and the surrounding gums and teeth
- the use of antiseptic mouthwash
- a course of antibiotics to treat the cause of the infection
The methods above will help get the infection under control, but the wisdom tooth will still most likely need to be extracted. This will help prevent further infections and damage to surrounding tissues.
A minor wisdom tooth infection may go away on its own within a few days. In the meantime, a person can take over-the-counter pain relief medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).
Applying any pain relief medication on or near the tooth can cause damage, so it is best to avoid this. A person may find relief by using an antibacterial mouthwash, which can help keep the infection and associated inflammation under control.
It is important to clean the affected area carefully with a toothbrush to remove plaque and food debris.
Some people find that rinsing with a mild saltwater solution provides relief from symptoms.
To make a saltwater solution, mix 1 teaspoon of salt into 1 cup of warm water. Take a sip of the solution, swish it around the mouth, and spit it out. Doing this several times a day, especially after eating, can help keep the area around the wisdom tooth clean.
If pain, possibly or definitely stemming from an infection, lasts for more than 3–4 days, or if there is swelling in the gums around a wisdom tooth, see a dentist.
The dentist will work to identify the cause of the problem and recommend appropriate treatments.
Many people delay getting dental treatment until their pain becomes severe or they develop significant swelling. When either happens, emergency care may be necessary.
Pericoronitis, for example, accounts for around 6–9% of emergency dental visits each year.
Wisdom teeth can cause various problems. There may not be enough room for them to come through, in which case they may emerge at an angle or never emerge fully. This sets the stage for future problems, such as cavities and infections.
Pain and swelling are two common symptoms of a wisdom tooth infection. If these issues last for more than a few days, visit a dentist.
The dentist will clean the affected tooth and will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. They may also recommend extracting the tooth to prevent further issues.