A visit to the dentist has always been a nerve-wracking experience for many people. But going to the dentist during COVID-19, elicits a new kind of fear. Social distancing and mask-wearing—the two most important actions you can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19—are impossible when you’re in the dentist’s chair.
The good news: To date, there have not been any clusters of COVID-19 cases reported in dental settings or among dental healthcare personnel, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The caveat: We don’t yet have any data to assess the risk of transmitting coronavirus during a dentist visit.
So what should you do with that information (or lack thereof), especially if you’re due for a cleaning?
We asked the experts—American Dental Association (ADA) spokesperson Cheryl Watson-Lowry, DDS, owner of Watson and Watson Dental Association in Chicago, and Pia Lieb, DDS, founder of Cosmetic Dentistry Center NYC—whether it’s wise to visit your dentist right now, what new health protocols you can expect at your appointment, and tips for taking care of your chompers at home. Here’s everything you need to know.
Is it safe to go to the dentist during COVID-19?
When coronavirus first swept across the country in March, the majority of dentist offices ceased regular operations and, in accordance with CDC guidance at the time, saw patients for emergency reasons only. In May, when that guidance was updated, many dentist offices reopened with new health protocols in place and started offering routine cleanings and other non-emergency services again. As of mid-July, 98% of dental offices in the U.S. were open and patient volume was 71% of pre-COVID-19 levels, according to data from the ADA Health Policy Institute.
But is it smart to see your dentist right now?
Yes, says Watson-Lowry. And it’s not just smart—it’s crucial for your overall health. “Unfortunately, dental disease, including cavities, won’t wait for COVID-19 to end,” she says. “It’s extremely important for patients to continue to see their dentist for their regular checkups and cleanings—even during this time—because the longer patients wait and go without preventative care and treatment for early disease, the more likely their untreated disease will progress. And then that can lead to more extensive problems and increase the time and the costs for necessary care.”
Sub-par oral hygiene, she adds, can affect more than just your mouth. “Gum disease is an inflammatory disease and it can affect the rest of your body,” she says.
Also, routine dental exams aren’t just about buffing up your pearly whites—your dentist is likely screening for oral cancer, performing a head and neck exam, and inspecting your lymph nodes, tongue, throat, gums, and other tissues in your mouth to make sure everything is healthy, says Watson-Lowry. For these reasons, you should get regular dental check-ups every six months, she says.
Of course we’re still in the throes of a global pandemic, which is why both the ADA and CDC have issued guidelines on how dentists can continue to provide this important care while minimizing the risk of transmitting COVID-19 among patients and staff. These guidelines include steps like screening patients for coronavirus before treatment, mandating patients wear masks pre and post exams, limiting the number of people in the office, thoroughly disinfecting rooms and equipment in between patients, requiring staff to don PPE, and using tools that reduce the amount of aerosols released during exams and procedures.
If you have concerns about getting oral care during COVID-19, definitely voice those worries to your dental office, says Waston-Lowry. “A patient has to feel comfortable,” she says. “But they also do have to understand that [disinfecting things] is what we do day in and day out.” If your dentist is following the ADA and CDC guidelines, then you “should feel really comfortable coming in,” she says.
That said, a small percentage of people shouldn’t visit the dentist right now, adds Watson-Lowry, including those living with someone who recently had an organ transplant, those who were ordered by their physician to stay at home, and those currently infected with COVID-19. If that’s you and you’re worried about your oral health, ask your dentist about tele-medicine options. A virtual consultation could also be a good first step if you’re experiencing an issue and unsure if it warrants an in-person visit.
Before your visit
If you need to visit the dentist right now—either for a routine cleaning or a procedure—call the office before booking an appointment. Ask if they are following the ADA and CDC-recommended guidelines and if they will be physically distancing you from other patients during your visit, advises Watson-Lowry. It’s also smart to ask how many patients they are seeing a day, says Lieb. The number should be lower than usual to allow for social distancing and thorough sanitizing in between patients. If anything about your dentist’s COVID-19 safety procedures is confusing or worrisome, ask questions. And if their procedures seem inadequate, definitely find another provider who is doing all they can to protect both their patients and their staff.
Before you can even schedule an appointment, your dentist’s office will likely ask questions to determine if you’ve been exposed to anyone with coronavirus or if you’re experiencing symptoms yourself, says Watson-Lowry. If you do have symptoms, you’ll have to get tested for COVID-19 (and, of course, test negative) before you can come in for an appointment. All patients scheduled for procedures that either involve anesthesia or cause slight to moderate bleeding (like root canals or periodontal implants) will need to get tested 48 hours before coming in, says Lieb.
If you’re used to bringing someone else with you to your appointment, like a parent, partner, or child, you’ll probably be asked to leave that person at home or have them wait for you outside the office. “That helps to reduce the number of people in the practice at any given time,” says Watson-Lowry. You may also be asked to complete any paperwork beforehand online, she adds.
What to expect at the dentist during COVID-19
Some dentist offices will ask you to stay outside the office until the dentist is ready to see you. Others, like Watson-Lowry’s, will request you call the office when you arrive so that they can confirm it’s safe for you to enter.
When you do head into the office, wear a mask and leave it on until you’re told to take it off, says Watson-Lowry. You’ll probably get your temperature taken upon arrival (at Lieb’s practice, temperature checks are issued before patients even walk through the door) and be asked to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. Then, you may be asked again if you’ve had COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to make sure your answers haven’t changed since your initial phone screening, says Watson-Lowry.
The waiting room (if there is one) will probably look pretty sparse with communal items, like toys and magazines, removed, and the number of chairs significantly reduced to allow for social distancing. Watson-Lowry’s waiting room, for example, previously sat about 10 people. Now, it holds just three chairs, which are all spread about 10 feet apart, she says.
If you have to fill out paperwork at the office, everything you touch during that process (like a clipboard and pen or iPad) will either be disinfected in between patients, disposed of, or given to you to take home, says Watson-Lowry. If you touch any surfaces (like doorknobs or countertops) during your visit, make sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before touching your mask and face again. When you take your mask off for your exam, be mindful of where you place it. Watson-Lowry asks patients to wrap their masks in a clean tissue or paper towel instead of placing it on their laps or another potentially contaminated surface.
During the actual exam, your provider will probably wear personal protective equipment and perhaps use different tools than usual in an effort to reduce the number of aerosols spewed into the room. Instead of polishing your teeth and removing plaque and debris with electric devices, for example, they may opt for manual tools, says Watson-Lowry. After your exam is over, you’ll put your mask back on and the room will be thoroughly wiped down and disinfected before the next patient comes in. The room may also have a filtration system that sanitizes the air in between procedures.
Exact protocols will vary practitioner to practitioner, but in general, if you see lots of other patients in the office, or if the space doesn’t seem sterile or as safe as your dentist claims, “don’t be afraid to walk out,” says Lieb. You should always feel empowered to make decisions to protect your health.
How to take care of your teeth at home
Visiting the dentist on the reg is important, but so is taking care of your mouth in between visits. There are simple things you can do at home to stave off oral health problems, like brushing your teeth twice a day using fluoride toothpaste, says Watson-Lowry. If, for some reason, you can only brush once a day, make sure you do so at night, she says, so that you don’t go to sleep with chunks of food in your smile. Consider using a Sonicare toothbrush, adds Lieb—they clean effectively without being rough on your gums and tooth structure. Floss once a day and afterwards, use an alcohol-free mouthwash, Lieb says.
Philips Sonicare Diamondclean Smart 9500
If you like to sip sugary or acidic drinks (think soda, juice, coffee, tea, and energy drinks) during the day, try to do so alongside a meal and then brush your teeth afterwards to lower your chances of tooth decay. If you can’t brush your teeth every time, at least swish tap water, says Watson-Lowry.
Also important: Limit your consumption of cough drops, lozenges, mints, and sugary gums as those items can increase your chances of developing cavities between your back teeth, she adds.
Note: Our understanding of COVID-19 is quickly evolving and confirmed case rates are climbing again in many states. ADA and CDC guidelines may shift as the pandemic progresses and local health departments may also change regulations surrounding dental visits. For more information about oral health during COVID-19, visit mouthhealthy.org, a public resource created by the American Dental Association.
Originally Appeared on Glamour