Emory professor and chief of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Steven Roser, DMD, MD, warns that retained third molars, or wisdom teeth, can harbor infection for years even though they appear healthy. Untreated infection can lead to periodontal disease.
"Periodontal disease is a serious health problem that is not just isolated to the mouth and gums," says Dr. Roser. "It can become a portal for infection to enter the body and cause other serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. It has also been proven to affect pregnancy, increasing the risk of low birth weight similar to that of smoking."
Ongoing studies by the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS) and the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation (OMSF) indicate that a significant group of patients between 14-45 develop periodontal disease in the third molar region, even though they show no symptoms.
Although epidemiological studies have shown there is a much lower rate of periodontal infection in adults under the age of 35, studies also suggest that infection may begin in young adults and not be detected until becoming problematic years later.
Because location of third molars makes them hard for patients to access and keep clean, they are particularly vulnerable to gum disease. Once bacteria begins to grow, it can spread to other areas of the mouth, cause teeth to loosen, or can even lead to the development of cysts or tumors in the jaws.
"Once the area around wisdom teeth becomes infected, the success rate for treatment is low," says Dr. Roser. "Because the teeth are in the back of the mouth close to the jaw, procedures are difficult to perform and restorations may have to be replaced often. It can become very expensive and very painful for the patient."
Dr. Roser suggests that dentists continuously keep a close watch on wisdom teeth in patients of any age, and consider their removal. It is especially important, he says, that women who are planning to get pregnant soon, or who are already pregnant, include keeping their teeth healthy along with all the other health precautions they are taking.