How to take care of your teeth during COVID-19 pandemic

Dentists describe what to expect at your next dental appointment — and why it's important to take care of your oral health at home.
Due to the pandemic. dentists may use different tools and methods during oral exams.
Due to the pandemic. dentists may use different tools and methods during oral exams. Getty Images

Thinking about scheduling a dentist appointment? The World Health Organization encourages a remote consultation first, and that any routine non-essential care (like checkups or cleanings) be delayed until there is a sufficient reduction in COVID-19 transmission rates.

Though if rates are low in your area and you're overdue for an appointment, reach out to your dentist to discuss. According to Dr. Chad Gehani, the president of the American Dental Association (ADA), dental health is "vital to overall health." Though it's important to note that a visit may look a little different these days.

"Many times people do not comprehend that teeth are attached to the body, to the bone and head, and that it is as important to take care of their teeth as their organs," he said. "Most of the dental diseases are preventable and, if detected in an early stage, they are very inexpensive and they are very easily treatable. If you let the oral condition go for too long a period of time, it can become more complicated later on."

Gehani said that he himself was experiencing some negative effects of not having been able to go to the dentist for several months. His biannual appointment was scheduled for March; a few weeks in advance, a filling in his mouth was damaged and he was unable to get it treated.

"All the dentists were doing, at that time, was emergency treatment," he explained. "It's currently a root canal and has gone from a small procedure to a $900 expense. This is a real story that happened to the president of the American Dental Association, so we are concerned about the patients who have been forced to neglect their teeth or they are still neglecting their teeth."

Dentists may change procedures and policies to make sure that patients and staff are safe. Santiago I?igue / Getty Images

What's going to the dentist like during COVID-19?

According to Gehani, the changes to your dental visit will start about 24 hours before your appointment. The ADA recommends that dental offices call patients the day before their scheduled appointment to ask about travel and potential COVID-19 exposures and remind patients to bring a mask and to come with as few other people as possible.

The waiting room experience is also likely to be different — you may be asked to call the dentist when you arrive and then wait in your car until the space is available for you. Instead of lingering in waiting rooms, patients are more likely to be brought directly to the exam room.

"(Previously), my office had 12 or 13 chairs; now I have four and we prefer to leave the waiting room completely empty if possible," said Gehani, whose office is located in New York City. "... Magazines are not in my waiting room anymore. Little toys that we would leave for children to play around with are gone."

Upon arrival, temperatures will be checked again, and clients will be asked to sanitize their hands before going further into the office. When filling out forms or information, clients will be given a clipboard that is sanitized between uses, and instead of borrowing a writing instrument, they'll be told to take home the pen or pencil they use to fill out the forms. Computer keyboards may also be covered with a disposable cover.

Dentists may wear more protective gear than usual. Getty Images

"Any area that the patient touches we will spray it with a disinfectant so it is ready for us to receive the next patient," said Gehani, adding that most patients had been understanding about the new restrictions. "They understand that this is being done to not only protect them but to protect the next patient as well as the dentist and dental team who are our partners in providing services."

Gehani said that he and other office staff are likely going to be wearing more protective gear than usual. He said that he typically wears an N95 mask and face shield, and occasionally wears googles to protect his eyes.

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"When patients arrive now, it may almost feel like they are going into an operating room," he said. "Patients are not used to seeing us the way they are seeing us now."

Dentists may also use different tools and methods during oral exams.

"We also use high-speed suction, almost all the time, and we recommend the use of dental dams. A dental dam is a piece of rubber that only exposes one to three teeth at a time, depending on where the dentist wants to work," Gehani said. "That reduces any aerosolization. ... Instead of using an ultrasonic device more commonly used that cleans the teeth faster, now the dentists are doing more of a hand cleaning."

Dr. Matthew Messina, the dental clinic director at the Ohio State Upper Arlington Dentistry, said that there is no reason for people to worry about going to the dentist.

"We're kind of uniquely prepared to provide a safe, healthy environment for people to come in," he said. "You know, dental offices have been really committed to universal precautions and high level disinfection and care for patients long before it was cool."

"We've been in a close space relationship with patients for years and years, and have been through a variety of (epidemics), whether it's HIV or hepatitis or things like that," he continued. "These are all precautions that we've used before, so we haven't really had to do new things as much as modify existing protocols to provide a safe and healthy environment. The dentist's office is a very, very safe place for patients to have their treatment done."

Dentists say that despite the pandemic, offices are still safe. Santiago I?iguez / Getty Images

How can you keep your teeth healthy without going to the dentist?

If you're still unable to go to the dentist, it's important to maintain good dental hygiene, according to Messina.

"We've seen that some people have kind of slacked off on their oral care, and that begs a gentle reminder from us that bacteria don't know there's a pandemic," he said. "It's important for us to continue brushing really well twice a day, flossing between your teeth, and eating a healthy diet."

Keeping gums and teeth healthy can reduce the amount of bacteria in the mouth, according to Messina, which can help with other health conditions.

"Science is showing increasingly the links between gum disease and diabetes, strokes, heart attacks and Alzheimer's disease and rheumatoid arthritis, the list goes on and on and on," Messina said. "These bacteria can cause inflammation and higher level of inflammation in the body is a key link to other systemic problems."

"I would say that going to the dentist on a regular basis will be helpful for the overall health of all Americans," said Gehani.

This story was updated on August 11, 2020 to include guidance from the World Health Organization.