Introduction 

The removal of wisdom teeth, or third molars, is one of the most common procedures carried out in the UK.

The wisdom teeth grow at the back of your gums and are the last teeth to come through. Most people have four wisdom teeth, one in each corner.

Wisdom teeth usually grow through the gums during the late teens or early twenties. By this time, the other 28 adult teeth are usually in place so there isn't always enough room in the mouth for the wisdom teeth to grow properly.

Because of the lack of space, the wisdom teeth can sometimes emerge at an angle or get stuck and only emerge partially. Wisdom teeth that grow through in this way are known as impacted.

Why are wisdom teeth removed?

Wisdom teeth that have become impacted or haven't fully broken through the surface of the gum can cause dental problems.

Food and bacteria can get trapped around the edge of the wisdom teeth, causing a build-up of plaque, which can lead to tooth decay, gum disease or other problems.

Your wisdom teeth don't usually need to be removed if they are impacted but they are not causing any problems. This is because there is no proven benefit of doing this and it carries the risk of complications.

Read more about why a wisdom tooth might need to be removed.

When to see a dentist

You should make an appointment to see your dentist if you're experiencing severe pain or discomfort from your wisdom teeth. Your dentist will check your teeth and advise you about whether they need to be removed.

As with any teeth problems, it's important to see your dentist as soon as possible rather than waiting for your regular dental check-up.

How wisdom teeth are removed

Your dentist may remove your wisdom teeth or they may refer you to a specialist surgeon for treatment in hospital.

Before the procedure, you will usually be given a local anaesthetic injection to numb the area around the tooth. You'll feel some pressure just before the tooth is removed, as your dentist or oral surgeon needs to widen the tooth socket by rocking the tooth back and forth.

In some cases a cut (incision) may be needed in your gum and the tooth may need to be cut into smaller pieces before it is removed.

The time it takes to remove the tooth will vary. Some procedures only take a few minutes, whereas others can take 20 minutes or longer. 

After your wisdom teeth have been removed, you may experience swelling and discomfort, both on the inside and outside of your mouth. This is usually worse for the first three days, but it can last for up to two weeks.

Read more about how a wisdom tooth is removed and recovering from wisdom tooth removal.

Possible complications

As with all surgery, there are risks associated with removing a wisdom tooth. These include problems such as infection or delayed healing, both of which are more likely to occur if you smoke during your recovery.

Another possible complication is "dry socket", which is a dull, aching sensation in your gum or jaw, and sometimes a bad smell or taste coming from the empty tooth socket. Dry socket is more likely to occur if you don't follow the after-care instructions given by your dentist.

There is also a small risk of nerve damage, which can cause problems such as pain or a tingling sensation and numbness in the tongue, lower lip, chin, teeth and gums. This is usually temporary, but it can be permanent in some cases.

Read more about the possible complications of wisdom tooth removal.

Wisdom teeth

A consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon explains why people have problems with their wisdom teeth, the treatments available and the important things to ask before treatment.

Media last reviewed: 05/02/2014

Next review due: 05/02/2016

Dental costs

Dentists charge depending on the treatment required, unless you're under 18 years old or otherwise exempt from NHS charges.

If hospital treatment is required, it will be provided through the NHS free of charge.

Find out more about dental costs and find your local dental surgery.

Page last reviewed: 04/06/2013

Next review due: 04/06/2015