Dental patients may be in a quandary as to whether or not to pursue non-emergency dental treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Conflicting advice makes the decision a difficult one. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dental care should be postponed for the time being. In contrast, the American Dental Association (ADA) advises dental patients to move forward with their appointment. Who is right and how do you make a safe decision?
How High is the Risk?
In August of this year, the World Health Organization advised patients to delay nonessential dental care in highly vulnerable areas. This precaution was based on the fact that by nature, dental procedures are high risk for spreading COVID-19. Dental professionals are more likely to contract the virus, and they pose a greater threat to passing the virus on to patients. They are working in close proximity to patients, preforming procedures in the mouth, which is always a hotbed of germs and bacteria.
Many individuals who test positive for the COVID-19 virus are asymptomatic. There have been cases of positive testing where the individual showed no signs of fever or any other symptoms. This by itself puts dental professionals and their patients at a greater risk of infection.
In geographical areas where the virus is not as widespread, the risk for infection may appear lower, and this can be misleading. Precautions still need to be taken to keep people safe. In other areas where the virus is more prolific, the chances of exposure are significantly increased.
One of the major factors causing dentistry in particular to be such a high-risk proposition is the nature of the procedures. Not only are dental professionals working in the mouth for long periods of time, many dental procedures call for aerosol-generating instruments.
Dental procedures expose workers and patients to saliva, blood and bodily fluids. Sharp instruments are used, which can also factor into increased exposure rates in the dental office. Some offices are not sufficiently equipped with ventilation systems that filter the air adequately to prevent the spread of the virus.
Essential Dental Visits
Staying away from the dental office until the pandemic is over may not be realistic. For some people, it just will not happen; a visit to the dentist may be necessary. Even the World Health Organization advises people to seek dental care if there is an immediate need.
An immediate need includes dental emergencies, pain, infection or trauma. Ignoring a serious dental problem will only make matters worse and could put your life in jeopardy if infection is involved. If there is not an immediate need, the WHO advises patients to forego dental care at this time. If the need is questionable, the WHO recommends patients call their dentist and use “remote consultation” to determine whether or not the situation requires an in-office visit.
Non-Essential Dental Care
Here is where it can get tricky. Cosmetic dental treatments such as teeth whitening, dental veneers and other elective dental treatments can easily be considered non-essential dental care. These procedures help your smile look more appealing, but they will not necessarily have a direct impact on your oral health. Additionally, most of them require aerosol-generating procedures, which can increase the possibility of passing the virus. These types of treatment may be better left until the threat of the virus has passed.
Dental checkups and cleanings may not be essential in the way dental emergencies are; however, they can be considered essential. Annual or biannual oral examinations are vital in keeping your oral health at its best. The oral examination identifies areas of decay, gum disease, oral cancers and other dental or oral problems. Without an oral exam, you are taking chances with your oral health.
Dental cleanings are important also. Some people have serious plaque buildup within a matter of months. Left untreated, this can lead to gingivitis and over time, may develop into serious gum disease that ultimately can lead to tooth loss. Your annual cleaning prevents plaque from accumulating and causing tartar to form.
Without a cleaning, plaque can turn to tartar. This hard substance accumulates on the tooth structure where it adheres to the teeth. The gums become detached from the tooth and infected. Red, swollen or puffy gums that bleed when you brush or floss are an indication of gum disease. Regular dental cleanings can prevent this from happening.
When you consider that oral health is a key factor in general health, the issue of whether or not to get your regular dental checkup and cleaning takes on even more importance. Poor oral health has been linked to serious health problems such as:
- Heart disease
- Low birth weight
- Fertility problems and other
- Respiratory infections
There are other health conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease, that appear to occur more frequently in individuals who also have poor oral health.
You can see why your annual dental examinations and cleanings may not be considered as immediate needs, yet still essential for your health.
Maintaining Oral Health During the Pandemic
You may decide that since you brush and floss your teeth properly on a regular basis and you can see no signs of any problems, you can skip your dental checkups and cleanings for now. The only problem with that is not all dental issues are visible to the naked eye.
Oral cancers, decay under a filling or crown and plaque buildup in hard-to-reach areas are examples of dental problems you may have that can only be discovered by a trip to the dentist. If you feel you are at high risk for any of these conditions, you may not want to skip your annual checkup.
Individuals who may have a higher risk of some of these oral issues are those who:
- Smoke or use tobacco products
- Have misaligned teeth
- Dental bridges or crowns
- Use medication that increases plaque buildup
Ultimately, you make the decision whether or not you are willing to go to the dentist. Most dental offices are taking stringent precautions to keep patients and staff as safe as possible under the circumstances.
Beyond the Dental Office
You can be assured that, all things considered, your visit in the dental office will be as safe as possible. Dentists and their teams are staying current on the latest guidelines and recommendations for safely working with patients and mitigating the spread of the virus.
Your concerns with a visit to the dentist should also include transportation to and from the office. Will you be using public transportation to get to and from the office? Keep in mind that being in close proximity with others, especially those not wearing a mask, can increase your chances of contracting the virus.
If you are in a high-risk group to begin with, and you decide to make a trip to the dentist, take all the necessary precautions to keep yourself safe. If you have any symptoms, stay home. If you are not sure if you should see the dentist, call first and get guidance. You may not need a visit at this time.
Your oral health is important, and it should not be neglected during this time. Watch what you eat, brush and floss regularly and call your dentist if you have questions about your oral health. Aesthetic & Implant Dentistry of Atlanta prioritizes the health of both patients and dental team members. Contact us to schedule an appointment.