Jennifer Flach was a college junior when her wisdom teeth started causing problems.
"My other teeth started moving around," she remembers. "The wisdom teeth were pushing out and undoing some of the orthodontic work I had done in high school."
At the same time, her brother — who's two years younger and was also in college — had no symptoms. But the family dentist said his wisdom teeth should come out, too.
Jen and her brother had back-to-back surgeries. They recovered together at home during spring break. "It was quite a week at my parents' house," she says.
Patrick Grother was 26 when his dentist said his wisdom teeth might need to be removed. His bottom left wisdom tooth had come partway into his mouth. But a flap of gum still covered it. "The dentist said food would get trapped there and it could get infected," he says.
Patrick eventually had the wisdom teeth on the left side of his mouth taken out.
A few people are born without wisdom teeth. Others have enough room in their mouths for the teeth. But many of us, like Jen and her brother, get our wisdom teeth taken out as young adults. And like Patrick, many of us are first alerted to the problem when our wisdom teeth can't come in all the way.
If that happens, part of the tooth may be covered by a flap of gum. Bits of food and bacteria can get trapped under the flap. This can cause swelling and a low-grade infection called pericoronitis. This usually happens with lower wisdom teeth. Pericoronitis, and the pain it causes, are the most common reasons people need wisdom teeth taken out.
There are other reasons to have your wisdom teeth removed.
In many people, the wisdom teeth are blocked from coming in, usually by bone or other teeth. Sometimes the teeth are tilted under the gum. Dentists call these "impacted" teeth.
They may cause pain, but not always. You may feel nothing at all for years. You may not even be aware that you have wisdom teeth until your dentist sees them on an X-ray.
Regular dental visits are important during your teens and early 20s. If you visit your dentist regularly, he or she can use X-rays to follow the progress of your wisdom teeth. Any problems will be seen early.
Even if your wisdom teeth aren't causing any pain or other problems, they may cause problems at some point. The most common problems are decay, infection and crowding or damage to other teeth. Teeth next to the wisdom teeth are more prone to developing gum problems.
But more serious complications can occur. Some people develop fluid-filled growths called cysts. These can cause permanent damage to bone, teeth and nerves. In rare cases, other tumors may develop as well.
Not all wisdom teeth need to be removed. But if there's a chance your wisdom teeth will cause problems, it's easier to take them out when you're young. That's because the roots of the teeth are not fully developed yet, and the bone around the teeth is less dense. Younger people also heal faster than older ones. As you age, it will take longer to recover from the surgery.