Just as you enter adulthood, your wisdom teeth make their presence known in the far reaches of your mouth. Wisdom teeth — officially the third molars — are the last set of teeth to come in, usually between 17 and 25 years of age, in the so-called “age of wisdom.”
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When wisdom teeth are misaligned, they may position themselves horizontally, be angled toward or away from the second molars, or be angled inward or outward. Poor alignment of wisdom teeth can crowd or damage adjacent teeth, the jawbone, or nerves.
Wisdom teeth also can be impacted — they are enclosed within the soft tissue and/or the jawbone or only partially break through or erupt through the gum. Partial eruption of the wisdom teeth allows an opening for bacteria to enter around the tooth and cause an infection, which results in pain, swelling, jaw stiffness, and general illness. Partially erupted teeth are also more prone to tooth decay and gum disease because their hard-to-reach location and awkward positioning makes brushing and flossing difficult.
The Trouble With Wisdom Teeth
Anatomy is at the root of most problems with wisdom teeth.—jaws are either too small or teeth themselves are too big for the jaw. This adds up to a crowded mouth.
Because of the lack of space, molars can grow sideways, only partially emerge from the gums (called “partially impacted wisdom teeth”), or get trapped in the gums and jawbone (“impacted wisdom teeth”). Partially impacted wisdom teeth are chronically contaminated with bacteria associated with infection, inflammation, tooth decay, and gum disease. Because they’re so far back in the mouth, it’s hard to keep them clean and get rid of the bacteria. Fully impacted wisdom teeth also can get infected and disturb the position of the other molars. These consequences can spread outside of the mouth, causing other health problems.
Even when wisdom teeth come in fully (“erupted” out of the gums), they can still pose a problem for a healthy mouth. Here, it’s all about location, location, location. The third molars are so far back in the mouth that it’s easy for food to get trapped, leading to more bad news: plaque, cavities, and gum disease. Many people just can’t reach them to brush and floss well enough.