Wisdom teeth are the third and final set of molars that emerge from the gums when people are in their late teens or early adulthood. When healthy and correctly aligned in the mouth, they can be beneficial. But when these molars crowd nearby teeth or don't emerge fully from the gums, they have to be removed.
Studies so far have focused on people who say dental work weakened their sense of taste, reports senior author Richard Doty, PhD, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. But those symptoms are believed to ease over time, he says.
To assess the long-term effects of the surgery, he and his colleague, dental student Dane Kim, tracked more than 1,200 people for 20 years.
The pair evaluated 891 people who had gotten third-molar extraction and 364 who had not. All were asked to swish different-tasting solutions -- sweet, sour, salty, or bitter -- in their mouths.
Overall, taste test scores were better for people who had had their wisdom teeth removed than for those with a full set of 32 adult teeth.
Why this happens remains a mystery. It is possible that nerve damage to the taste buds during molar extraction increases whole-mouth sensitivity, the researchers say. Or it could be that nerve injury triggers a type of oral hypersensitivity.