Pericoronitis is swelling and infection of the gum tissue around the wisdom teeth, the third and final set of molars that usually appear in your late teens or early 20s. It is most common around the lower wisdom teeth.
Pericoronitis occurs around a wisdom tooth that has failed to come in or has only partially erupted. A partially-erupted wisdom tooth can leave a flap of gum tissue that collects food particles and other debris—an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.
Milder symptoms of pericoronitis include painful, swollen gum tissue near the affected tooth. You may find it hard to bite down in that area without hitting the swollen tissue. You may also notice an unpleasant smell or taste in your mouth, and a discharge of pus in the area.
More severe symptoms include swelling in that part of the face, swollen lymph nodes, and jaw spasms. These are signs of a spreading infection into the throat and neck, which could affect your ability to breathe and swallow, and could be life-threatening. For this reason, if you notice the early signs of pericoronitis, it’s important to contact your dentist immediately.
First, your dentist will flush away the accumulated food particles and other debris from the area. Then, he or she will prescribe a course of oral antibiotics to clear up the infection. He or she will also recommend an antibacterial oral rinse that you can use to clear the infected area. You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers, or a pain reliever prescribed by your dentist, to manage the pain.
What happens next depends on the status of the wisdom tooth. Sometimes, pericoronitis develops near a tooth that is still in the process of erupting, which will continue to come in normally. In that case, your dentist will monitor the area to ensure that it stays clean and infection does not recur, until the tooth has fully come in. If your symptoms are severe, it may also be necessary to have minor oral surgery to remove the flap of gum tissue (called the operculum).
If it appears that the wisdom tooth will not come in normally, the dentist may recommend that it be removed. Sometimes, the dentist may remove both upper and lower wisdom teeth, to prevent the upper tooth from biting into the lower gum and causing further infection.
Pericoronitis sometimes occurs even with excellent dental care. The best preventive strategy is to brush and floss regularly, use an antibacterial rinse, and follow any other recommendations your dentist gives you for good oral hygiene.