While wisdom teeth can create a mouthful of problems, a recent
study suggests keeping these third molars may also be a culprit of
University of North Carolina researchers conducted a study that
found gum disease, formally known as periodontal disease, is
significantly more prevalent in adults who have chosen not to have
their wisdom teeth extracted.
Ray White, a maxillofacial surgeon at the University of North
Carolina and a researcher for the study, said the results came as a
“We estimated 10 percent would have gum disease around their
wisdom teeth,” he said. “Instead, 25 percent had a problem with
periodontal disease, and if you add up only the people over 25,
one-third of them had a problem.”
Periodontal disease is a fairly common affliction affecting
millions of Americans. According to the National Institute of
Dental and Craniofacial Research’s Web site, over 80 percent of
Americans have some form of the disease.
Anaerobic, protein-eating bacteria collect around a tooth
causing the disease.
Rick Felton, a surgeon with Northern Colorado Oral and
Maxillofacial Surgery in Fort Collins, 1008 Centre Ave., said one
reason wisdom teeth may cause periodontal disease is because they
often do not fully erupt through the gums, making it easier for
bacteria to infect the gums.
“Once the gum tissue opens up over the wisdom tooth, the food
begins to get caught under that gum tissue flap. This allows
bacteria to grow, which secrete acids, which then begin to dissolve
bone around the wisdom tooth under the gum tissue. This creates a
larger space allowing more food to get caught ultimately resulting
in an infection that necessitates removal of the tooth,” said
Felton in an e-mail interview.
The primary symptoms of periodontal disease include red, puffy
or swollen gums, or gums that bleed easily during brushing and
flossing, according to Sally Cram, a practicing periodontist in
Washington D.C. and an American Dental Association
If left untreated, the disease can eventually cause the
immediate tooth to become loose and fall out altogether, as well as
spread to surrounding teeth.
The study also showed the infection got progressively worse over
time without removal of the wisdom teeth.
“The pockets get deeper and there are more bacteria than there
were before,” White said. “It’s not something where it just stays
the same – it clearly gets worse.”
Furthermore, studies have shown that, untreated, periodontal
disease can lead to more dangerous health problems such as
cardiovascular disease and premature, low birth weight babies,
“If you keep your (wisdom) teeth over the long haul, you’re at
greater risk,” White said.
Treatments such as antibiotics are available for periodontal
disease, but are costly and tedious and do not fully eliminate the
disease. There is no long-term cure for the infection, other than
pulling the effected teeth.
“Kept wisdom teeth tend to have more gum problems,” Cram said.
“A lot of that is because when wisdom teeth are erupted into the
mouth, they’re so far back there that most people have a real
difficult time flossing, brushing and cleaning them properly.”
The difficulty of correctly maintaining wisdom teeth was also
shown to lead to tooth decay. One-third of the patients in the UNC
study had tooth decay in their wisdom teeth and at least 50 percent
of people with their wisdom teeth experience either periodontal
disease or tooth decay, White said.
“In terms of fillings, it’s a lot cheaper the have the teeth
taken out than have them filled every seven or eight years,” he
White said it is critical for people who choose to keep their
wisdom teeth to go in for regular six-month dental checkups to make
sure problems have not arisen.
“You should have them checked for periodontal pockets on a
regular basis and you should also have them checked for decay,” he
said. “Everything else being equal, you’ve got about two chances
out of three for one of those things happening, assuming you have
no other big health problems.
Felton recommended consulting an oral surgeon on the removal of
wisdom teeth. They can often determine through a simple x-ray
whether the teeth will ever break through the gums and need to be
“Though wisdom teeth are often asymptomatic at the ideal age, it
is usually recommended to remove them when the patient is younger
to prevent a more invasive, riskier surgery when the patient is
older and finally having problems,” Felton said.
White agreed, noting that it is more likely than not that wisdom
teeth will cause problems down the road.
“If you just use odds and you’re a betting person, you’re going
to bet you’re better off having them out than keeping them around
and waiting to see what happens,” he said.