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Wisdom Tooth Infection: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments & Tips

Xray scan of a wisdom tooth

Wisdom tooth infections can be unexpected and often excruciating. These third molars—usually unnecessary and too late for the party—can bring severe pain, swelling, and infection, appearing at the ages of 17 and 25.

This comprehensive guide explores everything from the origins of wisdom tooth issues to practical strategies for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Whether you’re a dental patient experiencing swollen gums, an impacted tooth, or a dental professional seeking to elevate your knowledge, this post is a tool you’ll want to keep close.

What is a Wisdom Tooth Infection?

Girl having toothache

A wisdom tooth infection happens when bacteria enter the gum tissue around a partially impacted wisdom tooth, causing swelling, pain, and other symptoms like bad breath and difficulty chewing. Dentists often recommend wisdom tooth removal to prevent infections and alleviate symptoms.

Good oral hygiene, including gentle brushing and flossing, can help prevent bacteria buildup and reduce the risk of infection. If experiencing symptoms of a wisdom tooth infection, such as swollen gums or persistent pain, it’s crucial to ask advice from a dental professional to prevent further complications.

Causes of Wisdom Tooth Infection

Wisdom tooth infection is as complex as it is painful. Here are some of the causes of a wisdom teeth infection:

1. Impaction: A Tale of Misalignment

When a wisdom tooth can’t correctly emerge through the gumline, it’s considered ‘impacted.’ This can lead to discomfort and create a welcoming environment for pathogens.

2. The Oral Hygiene

Bad oral hygiene is the root of most dental issues, and wisdom teeth pose challenges. Their hard-to-reach location often becomes a haven for plaque buildup and decay, potentially setting the stage for a painful infection.

3. The Gum Disease-Domino Effect

For those who already suffer from gum pain and disease, the presence of wisdom teeth can exacerbate the issue. The close quarters and partially erupted state can lead to inflamed and infected gum line tissue.

4. Mealtime Incidents

Occasional but not uncommon, food debris trapped around a partially erupted wisdom tooth can be painful and serve as a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

What are the Symptoms of an infected wisdom tooth?

Experiencing a wisdom tooth infection can be uncomfortable and alarming, needing professional attention from oral health professionals. Here are some common symptoms to watch out for:

  1. Pain and Swelling: This often manifests in the jaw or around the wisdom tooth. The discomfort can range from minor tooth pain to more severe throbbing sensations accompanied by noticeable swelling.
  2. Difficulty Chewing and Eating: As the infected wisdom tooth affects oral function, you may find it challenging to chew food properly or even open your mouth fully due to discomfort.
  3. Facial Swelling and Redness: Inflammation around the affected area can lead to visible swelling and redness on your face, particularly around the jawline.
  4. Bad Breath and Fever: An infected wisdom tooth causes bad breath due to the presence of bacteria, and in some cases, it may also lead to a low-grade fever as your body responds to the infection.
  5. Swollen Lymph Nodes: You may notice swollen lymph glands in your neck, indicating your body is fighting the infection.

Treating a Wisdom Tooth Infection

Woman getting treatment

When facing a wisdom tooth infection, timely and appropriate treatment is crucial to alleviate discomfort and prevent further complications. Here are the primary treatment options your dentist may recommend:

Antibiotics: Antibiotics control the infection caused by a wisdom tooth infection. They target and eliminate the bacteria responsible for the infection and prevent future problems. Your dentist may prescribe antibiotics to reduce inflammation and prevent the spread of disease to surrounding tissues and other parts of the body. It’s essential to take the prescribed antibiotics exactly as directed and to complete the entire course, even if symptoms improve before the medication is finished.

Pain Medication: To manage pain and discomfort associated with a wisdom tooth infection, your dentist may recommend over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. These medications can help alleviate toothache, jaw pain, and swelling. Follow your dentist’s instructions regarding dosage and frequency, and avoid exceeding the recommended dose to minimise the risk of side effects.

Wisdom Tooth Extraction: In cases where the infection is severe or recurrent, or if the wisdom tooth is impacted, partially erupted, or causing crowding issues, wisdom tooth removal may be necessary to prevent future complications. Removing the infected wisdom tooth eliminates the source and reduces the risk of recurrent infections. Additionally, extraction can avoid damage to nearby teeth, gum tissue, and bone structure.

Your oral surgeon will perform the extraction procedure under local anaesthesia to ensure your comfort. After the extraction, your dentist will provide post-operative instructions for proper wound care and pain management.

Home Care Tips

Home care can complement professional treatment for a wisdom tooth infection, providing relief and promoting healing. Here are some effective home remedies:

  • Warm Salt Rinses: Warm salty water rinses can help reduce inflammation, alleviate discomfort, and promote healing of the affected area. To prepare a saltwater solution, dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in warm water. Gargle it for 30 seconds, focusing on the area around the affected wisdom tooth. Repeat this daily, especially after meals and bedtime, for optimal results.
  • Pain Medication: Over-the-counter medicines can temporarily relieve toothache and jaw pain associated with a wisdom tooth infection. However, it’s essential to consult your dentist for personalised recommendations and to ensure the safe use of these medications.
  • Cold Compress: Applying a cold compress to the outside of the cheek can help reduce swelling and numb the area, providing relief from pain and discomfort. Pack a few ice cubes in a cloth and apply them to the affected cheek for about 15 minutes. Repeat this process throughout the day, taking short breaks to prevent skin irritation.
  • Gentle Brushing: Despite the discomfort, it’s essential to gently brush your teeth, including the area around the affected wisdom tooth, using a soft-bristled toothbrush. Brushing helps remove particles of food and bacteria that contribute to infection and inflammation. Be careful not to apply too much pressure to avoid aggravating the area.
  • Flossing (if applicable): If the wisdom tooth is partially erupted and accessible, gently floss around it to remove trapped food particles and plaque. Use a gentle back-and-forth motion, and avoid forcing the floss between tight spaces to prevent irritation or injury to the gums.

How to Prevent Wisdom Tooth Infections?

Preventing wisdom tooth infections involves proactive oral care practices and regular dental monitoring. Here are some key preventative measures:

  1. Maintain Good Oral Hygiene Habits: Consistent brushing and flossing prevent wisdom tooth infections. Brush your teeth at least twice a day using fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush. Pay special attention to the back of your mouth, where wisdom teeth typically emerge.
  2. Regular Dental Checkups and X-rays: Schedule regular dental checkups, ideally every six months or as your dentist recommends. Your oral health will be assessed, including the development of your wisdom teeth, through clinical examination and X-rays. Early detection of potential issues, such as impacted wisdom teeth, allows timely intervention to prevent infections and other complications.
  3. Early Intervention for Impacted Wisdom Teeth: Early intervention is essential if your dentist identifies signs of impacted wisdom teeth, meaning they cannot emerge appropriately due to lack of space or obstruction. Your dentist may recommend extraction of impacted wisdom teeth to prevent future infections, crowding, and misalignment of adjacent teeth.
  4. Monitor Symptoms and Seek Prompt Treatment: Be vigilant for signs of wisdom tooth-related issues, such as pain, swelling, or difficulty opening your mouth. If you experience any symptoms suggestive of a wisdom tooth infection, seek prompt dental evaluation and treatment to prevent the infection from worsening.
  5. Maintain a Healthy Diet: Consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains contributes to overall oral health. Limit sugary and starchy foods that can elevate the chances of having decays and gum diseases, which may predispose you to wisdom tooth infections.

Complications (if left untreated)

Leaving a wisdom tooth infection untreated can lead to complications beyond oral health. Here are some potential consequences:

  1. Spread of Infection: An untreated wisdom tooth infection can spread to tissues, including the gums, jawbone, and nearby teeth. As the infection progresses, it can cause widespread inflammation and damage, leading to more severe oral health issues.
  2. Jawbone Damage: Prolonged infection from a wisdom tooth can damage the jawbone. This occurs as the infection eats away at the bone structure, weakening its integrity and potentially leading to bone loss. Severe jawbone damage may require extensive dental procedures or surgical intervention to repair.
  3. Nerve Damage: Wisdom teeth are often located near nerves in the jaw, and an untreated infection can damage these nerves. Nerve damage can manifest as persistent numbness or tingling in the face, jaw, or tongue. In severe cases, it may lead in chronic pain or altered sensation, impacting daily activities and quality of life.
  4. Other Potential Complications: Untreated wisdom tooth infections can contribute to the development of more systemic health problems. Infection and chronic inflammation in the oral cavity have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory infections. Persistent pain and discomfort can also affect eating habits, nutrition, and overall well-being.

When to See a Dentist

Patient talking to her dentist

If you experience any symptoms of a wisdom tooth infection, it’s crucial to seek immediate dental attention. Symptoms such as pain, swelling, tenderness, difficulty chewing, or persistent bad breath may indicate a wisdom tooth infection or other oral health issues that require prompt evaluation and treatment by a dentist.

Don’t hesitate to contact your dentist or an emergency dental clinic if you experience any signs of a wisdom tooth infection.

Conclusion

Wisdom tooth infections can cause discomfort and serious complications if left untreated. It’s essential to be aware of the symptoms, such as pain, swelling, and difficulty chewing, and to seek immediate dental attention if you experience any of these signs.

If you have concerns about wisdom teeth, don’t hesitate to schedule a dental appointment for evaluation and appropriate management. Make sure that you follow the dentist’s advice once they have given you instruction to prevent further problems.

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