Wisdom teeth do not always emerge (erupt) into the mouth properly because there may not be enough room in the mouth for them to fit. Sometimes, a part of the tooth may remain covered by a flap of gum. Food particles and bacteria can get trapped under this flap and cause a mild irritation, a low-grade infection called pericoronitis and swelling. This usually happens with the lower wisdom teeth.

What You Can Do

You cannot treat pericoronitis at home. Do not use warm compresses on your face. If you recognize the symptoms, get treatment right away. The symptoms may include:

  • A bad taste in the mouth — This often happens when there's an infection.
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Pain in the area around your back teeth — Pericoronitis usually occurs around the wisdom teeth.
  • Swelling behind the very back teeth — If you have pericoronitis, you'll notice that the gum tissue in the back of your mouth is swollen. This swelling may not allow you to bite comfortably without pinching the swollen tissues between your teeth.
  • Not being able to open your mouth fully

What Your Dentist Will Do

Pericoronitis can be tricky to treat because the overlying flap in the tissue won't go away until the wisdom tooth fully emerges naturally — which is unlikely to happen — or is removed by an oral surgeon.

Your dentist, however, may try to treat the problem without extensive procedures. He or she will clean the area thoroughly to remove damaged tissue or pus. If the area is infected, you'll be given oral antibiotics as well.

Your dentist will tell you how to keep the area clean, which is the best way to prevent the problem from coming back. You will have to brush and floss every day and also rinse your mouth with water several times a day. This will help to prevent food particles from building up in the area.

If the condition returns, your dentist probably will send you to an oral surgeon, who will remove the tooth. Once the tooth is out, you should not have the problem again. If the problem is caused by an upper wisdom tooth biting the gum covering a lower wisdom tooth, the upper one may be removed first.

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Reviewed by the faculty of Columbia University College of Dental Medicine