Wisdom teeth, also called third molars, begin to come in sometime between ages 16 and 23. For people who have plenty of room in their jaws, these final four teeth (one on either side on the top and bottom) will erupt without any trouble. There is also a small group of people who never develop any wisdom teeth. But for everyone else, these teeth are problematic. According to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, 85% of all wisdom teeth will eventually need to be removed.
Patients who need them taken out will need some time to recover from wisdom teeth removal. Unlike a simple cavity filling, wisdom tooth extraction is a minor surgery that will take from a few days up to a week of recovery. If there are complications, it could take even longer.
Why Wisdom Teeth Need to be Extracted
The main reason for wisdom teeth removal is that most people’s jaws are not big enough to fit these teeth. When they start to erupt, they either push and crowd against the other teeth, or become impacted.
Impacted teeth either grow at an angle or stay stuck in the jaw bone and never break through the gumline. This can result in a number of problems including:
- misalignment of the teeth
- damage to neighboring teeth or the jaw
- gum disease
- tooth decay
Dentists typically suggest pulling the teeth as soon as these issues arise. They may do the procedure themselves or refer the patient to an oral surgeon.
The Surgery Process
An oral surgeon might be able to use only a local anesthetic to remove wisdom teeth. More often, they will recommend sedation or general anesthesia. A lot will depend on how complicated they expect the procedure to be.
During the procedure, the surgeon will make an incision in the gum to expose the tooth. For impacted wisdom teeth, they may need to remove some of the surrounding bone or break the tooth into pieces in order to get it out. Once the tooth is gone, the area is cleaned and stitched up if necessary. Many dental professionals use stitches that dissolve as the wound heals. If not, the patient will need a follow-up appointment to have them removed. Finally, the wound is packed with gauze to control bleeding and to help form a clot, which is necessary for healing and recovery.
What to Expect As You Recover From Wisdom Teeth Removal
Overall, it takes about three to five days to recover from wisdom teeth removal. This varies by person and the complexity of the surgery. Here is what a patient can generally expect:
The First 24 Hours
Recuperating after any wisdom teeth extraction will take a bit of time. Patients will not, for example, be ready to go back to work or school later the same day. And if sedation or a general anesthetic is used, they typically are not even allowed to drive themselves home. Instead, they should make arrangements for transportation and take at least 24 hours and possibly a few days to rest.
As the numbness wears off, it is common to feel some pain and discomfort. Over-the-counter pain medication usually offers enough relief. The extraction site can also continue to bleed for the first 24 hours or so, and gauze should be replaced as necessary. It is important for blood to form a clot, so patients should not brush their teeth or use mouthwash for a full day after surgery.
Patients can usually resume most normal activities the next day, but they should take it easy and take special care when eating or drinking during the first 24 hours. They should only eat soft foods and should stay away from alcohol and drinks that are hot, caffeinated, or carbonated. Patients should also avoid using a straw for at least a week. Sucking on a straw can interfere with the blood clot that is forming.
The Next Few Days
For the next two to three days, it is normal to have some lingering soreness, along with some minor swelling and bruising. It might also be difficult to open the jaws wide. In most cases, ibuprofen or acetaminophen can manage the pain. An ice pack can help with swelling.
Tooth brushing can resume after the first 24 hours, but it should be done very gently. The dentist will often recommend rinsing with warm salt water every few hours and after meals for the first few days too.
Smokers should wait at least three days before lighting up (although we would suggest that this is a great time to consider quitting.) Chewing tobacco should not resume for at least a week post-surgery.
Getting Back to Normal
Patients should avoid strenuous activity and intense exercise right after surgery, but can start up again after about a week. By then, the pain should have subsided and they can get back to eating normally too.
If any symptoms are still present at the one week mark, or if they have gotten worse, it could mean a complication. Some conditions will make recovery longer but will go away by themselves. Others might need additional treatment or medication.
Most surgeons will schedule a follow-up appointment to see how the healing is progressing. This is a good time for the patient to discuss any concerns.
Complications that Can Make Recovery Longer
Surgery to pull wisdom teeth is safe and routine, but sometimes, complications can arise for some patients. The following conditions are rare, but possible, and will make it take longer to recover from wisdom teeth removal.
Infection. With any surgery, there is a chance of bacteria getting into the wound. Getting an infection under control can add a few days to several more weeks to recovery time.
Dry Socket. This is a painful condition that happens if the blood clot that forms at the extraction site comes loose, exposing the bone. It will take an additional two weeks for the patient to heal.
Lockjaw. Also called Trismus, this is a spasm of the jaw that makes it hard to open the mouth. It typically gets better on its own within two weeks.
Damage to Teeth, Nerves, Jawbone, or Sinuses. In some rare cases, the dentist or oral surgeon can nick a neighboring tooth, a nerve, the bone, or even the sinuses. These may take additional treatment or surgery to correct. Additional recovery time will vary depending on how serious the damage is.
When to Contact the Dentist or Oral Surgeon
The following symptoms could be a sign of one of the complications or something more severe.
- Difficulting breathing or swallowing
- Excessive bleeding
- Severe pain
- Persistent swelling
- A foul taste in the mouth even after brushing and rinsing
- Pus from the extraction site
- Pus or blood in nasal discharge
If any of these occur, it could be a dental emergency. Patients should make an appointment with their dental professional as soon as possible.
The majority of patients experience a full recovery from wisdom teeth removal within three to five days. The symptoms listed above—pain, swelling, bruising, etc.—are all a normal part of the healing process. If these symptoms last longer than expected, or if they get worse, contact the dentist or oral surgeon immediately.
If you need to find a dentist or oral surgeon in your area for your wisdom teeth, use our online tool and make an appointment today.