Oral Health and Safety (During a Pandemic)
The current coronavirus pandemic has changed many things in our everyday lives. Some of us remain unsure which activities are okay and which put our safety at risk. These decisions can be tough, especially with so much contradictory information in the news, online, and especially amongst our social networks. Here, our goal is to provide you with the answers regarding the necessary level of caution needed for your dental visits, and best practices during this uncertain time to keep your family safe while maintaining your oral health.
Do Dental Visits Put Me at Risk of Exposure to COVID?
The answer to this question is similar to that of the question, “Are dental x-rays safe?” We wisely understand and respect the risk faced by some individuals through exposure to dental x-rays. We also know that this risk is extremely low and overridden by the much more pressing risk of dental problems that you may miss by skipping these routine screenings.
The same is true for COVID-19 exposure.
At the time of this article’s writing, the number of positive COVID-19 cases remains extremely high, which means that any activity outside your home carries some risk of exposure. Dental visits are unique in that, at some point during your appointment, you must remove your mask to receive treatment. This is why many people assume dental practices are at high risk for exposure. We are happy to report that due to the many safety precautions we take, the risk for transmission of the coronavirus during a dental visit is extremely low. On the other hand, the risks involved in putting off important dental treatment can be quite severe.
Why are Dental Visits Important?
Consistent dental visits contain two very important components that are essential to maintaining good oral health. When you miss a regular check up, you place yourself at a higher risk for dental problems.
Professional Teeth Cleanings by the Dental Hygienist
Teeth cleanings don’t just make your teeth feel nice and shiny, they remove disease-causing bacteria from your teeth and gums. Your hygienist reaches the areas of your teeth that you cannot to ensure your mouth is free from the plaque and tartar buildup that leads to cavities and gum disease. No one is a perfect brusher and flosser, so everyone benefits from professional teeth cleanings. Professional teeth cleanings on a consistent schedule are essential to maintaining good oral health and preventing the development of dental diseases.
Oral Evaluations by the Dentist
If you think your dentist is simply looking for cavities, you would be surprised to learn everything they actually assess. The oral evaluation performed at each cleaning involves much more. While your dentist is indeed looking for cavities, he or she is also checking for warning signs and areas of risk. These risk factors include cavities, gum disease, cracked teeth, jaw problems, and oral cancer. Your dentist also scrutinizes yearly dental x-rays to catch signs of dental disease. Dental x-rays are essential for identifying problems in their earliest stages, before noticeable symptoms may arise.
When your dentist spots these red flags early, he or she can help you prevent dental problems from happening. This not only preserves your oral health; it saves you time and money.
These consistent evaluations are increasingly important. As our population ages, people are both keeping their teeth and suffering from prevalent dental problems longer. Studies show that two out of three adults ages 65 or older have gum disease, and one in five adults in that category has untreated tooth decay.
Has COVID Increased My Likelihood of Dental Problems?
According to a recent poll, the American Dental Association found that more than half of the surveyed dentists reported an increase in stress-related health conditions in their patients. This poll, taken during the week of September 21, 2020, noted the significant surge of bruxism (or teeth grinding), chipped and cracked teeth, and TMJ symptoms, likely due to stress inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.
While COVID infection itself should not increase your likelihood of dental problems, severe symptoms from covid could limit your capacity to perform routine oral hygiene tasks – this would increase the risk for dental problems. A recent study, however, did find that out of over 500 patients diagnosed with COVID, those with gum disease were 3.5 times more likely to be admitted into intensive care and 4.5 times more likely to need a ventilator. While gum disease is not necessarily an omen for those suffering from COVID, this study does reaffirm the importance of preventative care for overall wellness.
Quarantine could also lend itself toward neglect of oral hygiene due to the lack of a regular routine. People may find themselves staying up later, falling asleep in front of the TV at night, not brushing and flossing regularly, and snacking more frequently. Any of these habits can increase the risk for cavities and gum disease.
Stress from the pandemic could lead to an increased risk for cracked and broken teeth. Many people under high stress clench or grind their teeth heavily, either during the day or while sleeping. Some dentists report seeing a higher incidence of cracked teeth since the pandemic began.
Are There Any Alternatives to In-Person Dental Visits?
Many healthcare providers have turned to telehealth options to continue caring for patients. Dentistry is quite unique in that there is little value in a virtual visit. Most dental problems require both a dental x-ray and an in-person evaluation in order to diagnose the problem accurately.
Also, in situations where your dentist can accurately diagnose your concerns through a conversation and shared photo, the problem can only be adequately addressed through dental treatment. Unlike many medical ailments that will respond to prescription medication, dental problems do not. An antibiotic prescription might alleviate some of the symptoms and buy you a little time, but it will not fix the underlying condition.
We don’t mean to imply that there is no value in speaking with a dentist. Your dentist is often able to determine whether your problem requires urgent follow up through a conversation and a photo. This may allow you to plan ahead for the necessary dental visit.
Can I Skip My Teeth Cleaning if Nothing is Bothering Me?
This question uncovers the mistaken assumption that dental problems will always cause noticeable symptoms. The truth is, many dental problems can be caught before you start to notice pain or other symptoms. Cavities only hurt when they are large. Gum disease only causes noticeable looseness of a tooth when it is far advanced. As mentioned, many stress-related oral health conditions, like grinding or cracked teeth, may not be noticed right away. These habits may be subconscious, or even practiced only when sleeping. If a patient is new to this type of stress, you may not even be aware of what triggers and symptoms to look out for. With a proper dental exam, your dentist will notice the precursors right away, and prevent small cracks from growing before you notice the pain. By waiting until something bothers you, you are placing yourself at risk for suffering from advanced cavities, gum disease, or worse. The further along these dental diseases are, the more extensive and expensive the treatment becomes. It is never good to delay visits and risk an emergency situation.
How Can I Ensure My Dentist is Safe?
Not all dentists are alike, and while most have updated their protocols to meet the increased safety requirements of the pandemic, you are wise to be cautious. When scheduling a dental visit, here are some important steps to take.
Ask Questions before Your Visit
When you are scheduling a visit at your dental office, ask the team member what additional protocols the practice has instituted to combat transmission of COVID-19. Listen for things like screening of all patients entering the office, mandatory mask wearing for anyone in the building, pre-treatment rinsing, and increased PPE for dental team members.
While you are in the dental office, wear a face covering or mask at all times when you are not undergoing treatment. Wash your hands and use the hand sanitizer available for you. Maintain a six-foot distance between you and anyone besides your dental practitioner.
Understand Your Dentist’s Risk
We mention this, not to raise concern, but to build your confidence that your dentist is maintaining the strictest precautions against COVID transmission. When you understand that your dentist and his or her team members place themselves at the highest risk to provide you with vital oral healthcare, you can trust that the precautions taken are adequate to protect you. While dentists and other dental team members are at the highest risk for COVID spread due to aerosol exposure from patients, they are not suffering a higher rate of transmission. This proves that the protocols work. A study by the American Dental Association found that the rate of COVID-19 infection among dentists was less than 1%, which is far lower than that of other healthcare workers. Dentists have always been experts regarding infection control, and while COVID-19 presents the world with a new challenge, our team is proud to say that our implemented safety measures have met this challenge successfully.
What if I am High-Risk for COVID-19 Infection?
Patients who are particularly high risk for severe cases of COVID-19 should take additional precautions with dental care. We can further minimize the already low risk of virus transmission by ensuring you have the earliest appointment each morning before other patients have entered the office. We recommend prioritizing any dental problems that could progress into urgent situations, and performing necessary treatment in a manner that would eliminate multiple visits.
Oral Health and Safety: Your Next Steps
Good oral health is a vital part of your overall health and your body’s ability to fight infections of any kind, including COVID-19. Routine care is essential for maintaining good oral health. Rather than putting it off for an undetermined period, resolve to follow necessary protocols and obtain essential dental care safely.