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What Is An Operculum?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Wisdom teeth are not only the last teeth to emerge, but in many cases, they're the most tedious and trouble-prone. One associated problem many people face is the development of an operculum, which is a flap of gum tissue over the partially erupted tooth, according to a study in the International Journal of Dental and Medical Research (IJDMR). Though common, it can lead to infection if left untreated. Find out how to spot this flap of gum tissue and what treatment options are available.

Why an Operculum Develops

It's common knowledge that wisdom teeth can bring problems, especially if they don't have enough room to break through the gums. A tooth that has only partially erupted may develop a flap-like piece of tissue over it. Naturally, this can be uncomfortable, particularly if the upper tooth puts pressure on it, reports a study in the Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry. This flap of tissue most commonly occurs in the lower third molars, according to the IJDMR study.

Infection of the Gum Flap

In addition to being uncomfortable, a gum flap over a partially erupted tooth is also susceptible to infection if not treated. Operculitis, more commonly called pericoronitis, is a common complication that stems from this flap. Because the area is difficult to clean, plaque and bacteria can build up around the flap and lead to inflammation, reports the IJDMR study. This infection in the tissue flap most often affects patients aged 20 to 29. Moreover, pregnancy and fatigue may also correlate to a higher incidence of this type of infection.

Some patients may not experience symptoms, meaning the problem can go undetected. Others may feel pain or exhibit these signs of pericoronitis, as noted by the Columbia College of Dental Medicine:

  • Swelling in the area
  • Discomfort or pain when biting down
  • Unpleasant taste or smell
  • Discharge of pus

In severe cases, the infection can spread to the throat and neck, so it's crucial to seek treatment early on.

Treatment Options

If you have an infected operculum, the first course of action is to clear the infection. Your dentist is able to do that by cleaning the area and either prescribing an antibacterial mouthrinse or antibiotics, advises the Columbia College of Dental Medicine. Your dentist will then check if your tooth is still emerging properly. If it looks as though it hasn't erupted properly or if your infection is severe, your dentist may recommend a minor surgery, called an operculectomy, to remove the flap.

Usually, an operculectomy is performed with traditional surgery or laser-assisted surgery, according to a study in the British Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Laser surgery may be increasingly appealing, as the study found it can be faster to complete and result in a shorter healing time. Overall, laser surgery could offer a clean and easy way to remove the operculum.

Regardless of the procedure method, your dental provider will likely provide a local anesthetic to ensure you stay comfortable. Post-operative care generally includes swishing with warm salt water, avoiding foods that can irritate the area, such as spicy foods, and applying antibiotics to the site, reports the study in the Compendium of Clinical Education in Dentistry. Your dental provider will likely want to see you again a week or so after your surgery to check on your healing progress.

In some cases, the gum flap can grow back, and you'll need to discuss other options, such as molar extraction, with your doctor to prevent infections later on, according to the study in the Compendium of Clinical Education in Dentistry. If you feel your molars beginning to emerge through your gums, or if you feel any level of discomfort in your mouth, it's always best to make an appointment with your dentist sooner rather than later.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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