When a tooth fails to fully erupt or come out of the gums, it is called an impacted tooth. Wisdom teeth, or third molars, are the most common teeth to become impacted because they are the last to develop. They begin to form at about nine years of age but don't emerge through the gum tissue until the late teens or early twenties, at which point the jaws may have already stopped growing.
By the time wisdom teeth try to claim their space in the jaw, other teeth have already settled into theirs. If there is no space reserved for them, they try to squeeze themselves in with the rest of the teeth, possibly causing overcrowding and/or twisted, tilted or displaced teeth. That's why sometimes wisdom teeth never get to come out, so they stay either completely or partially submerged under the gums.
Add an "oversized wisdom tooth" to the equation, and it can make matters worse for the rest of the teeth community. As it tries to come out, the impacted tooth pushes other teeth which can cause an uneven bite.
A partially emerged tooth may also cause pericoronitis, an infection caused by bacteria from food, dental plaque and other debris trapped in the space between the impacted tooth and its surrounding gums.
Only your dentist can tell for sure if you have an impacted tooth. A dental X-ray is usually taken to confirm the presence of an impacted tooth. But before you visit the dentist, you may experience some symptoms that let you know something isn't right. These signs may include:
- Pain or tenderness of the gums, which may also be accompanied by swelling and redness
- Space in the gums where the tooth did not come out
- Bad breath and an unpleasant taste when biting down or near the affected area, usually indicating pericoronitis
- Swollen lymph nodes and difficulty opening the mouth
To Extract or Not To Extract
Sometimes an impacted tooth will just sit under the gums in peace, seemingly not causing any trouble. But usually, the only recourse is a tooth extraction, a procedure that will typically be performed by a dentist or oral surgery specialist.
In the meantime, to relieve any pain or irritation it may cause, experts recommend taking over-the-counter pain relievers or gargling warm salt water or mouthwashes to soothe your gums.