Regular dental exams are a critical part of preventive health care.
During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will clean your teeth and check for cavities and gum disease. The exam includes evaluating your risk of developing other oral problems and checking your face, neck and mouth for abnormalities. A dental exam might also include dental X-rays (radiographs) or other diagnostic procedures.
Your dentist or hygienist will likely discuss your diet and oral hygiene habits and might demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques. Other topics might include lifestyle factors that can affect oral health and possible cosmetic improvements to your teeth.
Many people dread teeth cleanings. Between the prodding, strange noises, and occasional jaw discomfort, it’s easy to understand their apprehension. But for most, a teeth cleaning is simple and painless.
Knowing exactly what is going on during the process can help ease your stress and allow you to better enjoy the minty-fresh results.
Most teeth cleanings are performed by a dental hygienist. Before the actual cleaning process begins, they start with a physical exam of your entire mouth.
The dental hygienist uses a small mirror to check around your teeth and gums for any signs of gingivitis (inflamed gums) or other potential concerns.
If they detect major problems, the dental hygienist might call the dentist to make sure it’s fine to proceed.
With the small mirror to guide them, the dental hygienist uses a scaler to get rid of plaque and tartar around your gum line, as well as in between your teeth. You’ll hear scraping, but this is normal. The more tartar there is in your mouth, the more time they’ll need to scrape a particular spot.
Brushing and flossing stops plaque from building up and hardening into tartar. Once you have tartar, you can only have it removed at your dentist’s office. So if this is your least favorite part of the teeth cleaning process, the lesson is to brush and floss more often.
After your teeth are completely tartar-free, the hygienist brushes them with a high-powered electric brush.which makes a grinding noise. While it sounds scary, it’s a great way to get a deep clean and remove any tartar left behind from the scaler.
Professional cleanings use toothpaste that smells and tastes like regular toothpaste, though you can often choose between flavors. However, it has a gritty consistency that gently scrubs your teeth. If done by a professional, this polishing of the teeth is deemed safe to do twice a year. But don’t be as harsh with your teeth at home, because you’ll wear down the enamel.
Whether you floss regularly at home or not, nothing beats an expert flossing session. Your dental hygienist can get deep between your teeth and locate any potential trouble spots where you might bleed at the gums.
This might seem pointless if you floss at home, but having a professional floss your teeth also removes any leftover plaque or toothpaste from earlier in the cleaning process.
Next, you rinse out your mouth to get rid of any debris. Your dental hygienist will usually give you a rinse that contains liquid fluoride.
The last step of the cleaning process is a fluoride treatment. This treatment is used as a protectant for your teeth to help fight against cavities for several months.
Your dental hygienist may ask you what flavor you like best. They’ll then place the foamy gel (or sometimes a sticky paste) into a mouthpiece that fits over your teeth. It’s usually left on your teeth for one minute. Besides the foamy gel, fluoride varnish is also painted onto the teeth with a small brush. Fluoride varnish will harden when in contact with saliva, so you can eat and drink immediately after.
Dental X-rays (radiographs) are images of your teeth that your dentist uses to evaluate your oral health. These X-rays are used with low levels of radiation to capture images of the interior of your teeth and gums. This can help your dentist to identify problems, like cavities, tooth decay, and impacted teeth.
Dental X-rays may seem complex, but they’re actually very common tools that are just as important as your teeth cleanings.
Dental X-rays are typically performed yearly. They can happen more often if your dentist is tracking the progress of a dental problem or treatment.
Factors affecting how often you get dental X-rays may include:
- your age
- your current oral health
- any symptoms of oral disease
- a history of gum disease (gingivitis) or tooth decay
If you’re a new patient, you’ll probably undergo dental X-rays so that your new dentist can get a clear picture of your dental health. This is especially important if you don’t have any X-rays from your previous dentist.
Children may need to have dental X-rays more often than adults because their dentists might need to monitor the growth of their adult teeth. This is important because it can help the dentist determine if baby teeth need to be pulled to prevent complications, such as adult teeth growing in behind baby teeth.
Topical fluoride is applied directly to and absorbed by the surface of the teeth. It is found in personal oral hygiene products such as toothpastes and mouth rinses, which contain a safe and effective concentration of fluoride to fight tooth decay. These products are rinsed from the mouth without swallowing.
Professionally administered topical fluorides such as foams, gels or varnishes are applied by a dentist and left on for a few minutes, usually during a cleaning treatment. For patients with a high risk of cavities, the dentist may prescribe a special gel or toothpaste for daily home use.
Using small amounts of fluoride on a routine basis can help prevent tooth decay. Too much fluoride could cause fluorosis of developing enamel. Fluorosis usually is mild, with tiny white specks or streaks that often are unnoticeable. Development of fluorosis depends on the amount, duration and timing of excessive fluoride intake.
Toothpaste can be used to deliver fluoride to the tooth surface. The use of a fluoride toothpaste should always be supervised in children. For those under three years old, a smear or rice size amount of fluoride toothpaste twice a day is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and American Dental Association. An amount equal to the size of a pea should be used twice a day for children ages 3 to 6 years of age. When using these small amounts, rinsing with water is discouraged after brushing to allow the fluoride a maximum topical effect.