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Dental Check-Up

How often should I go to the dentist?

The standard recommendation is to visit your dentist twice a year for check-ups and cleanings. This frequency level works well for most people, although some people with gum disease, a genetic predisposition for plaque build-up or cavities, or a weakened immune system might need to visit the dentist more frequently for optimal care.

Also, keep in mind that certain life events — particularly those that cause stress or illness — might cause changes in the mouth or the development of an infection, and might make more frequent visits to the dentist necessary. At the other extreme, people who have taken great care of their teeth and gums, and have gone years without any problems whatsoever might choose to lengthen the time between visits. Ask your dentist what visitation schedule works best for your state of dental health.

The three biggest reasons that most strongly support the twice-yearly visitation schedule are:

  • So that your dentist can check for problems that you might not see or feel
  • To allow your dentist to find early signs of decay (decay doesn’t become visible or cause pain until it reaches more advanced stages.)
  • To treat any other oral health problems found (generally, the earlier a problem is found, the more manageable it is.)

What happens at the typical check-up appointment?

The following oral health care activities usually take place at the typical dental check-up visit:

  • Professionals who will treat you — Two oral health care professionals - your dentist and the dental hygienist – will likely see you. The hygienist will conduct an initial oral exam of your gums and teeth, document any changes in your overall health and medicine use, clean and polish your teeth, talk to you about caring for your teeth and gums, and answer any questions you might have about home care products. Your dentist will also conduct an oral exam of your mouth (for signs of oral cancer or other diseases), gums, and teeth; ask about changes in your overall health or medicine use; review the cleaning done by the hygienist; diagnose any oral health problems; and make treatment recommendations.
  • Cleaning — Although home-based tooth brushing and flossing help remove plaque, only a professional cleaning – provided by your dentist or dental hygienist – can thoroughly clean your teeth and remove the hardened plaque (called calculus or tartar) that builds up on teeth. Most hygienists use a series of metal hand instruments to clean your teeth. Some are using ultrasonic scalers, which provide deep cleaning above and below the gum line.
  • Polishing — After your teeth have been cleaned, they are polished to remove plaque and stains on the tooth surface. The polish contains an abrasive substance and fluoride, and is applied using a small rotating rubber cup or brush attached to the dental hand piece.
  • Prevention — Your hygienist might offer additional instructions for you to follow at home, based on the results of your exam. Don’t hesitate to ask your hygienist for instructions about brushing or flossing, or general care questions about your teeth and gums.
  • X-rays — X-rays might or might not be taken during your check up. Your dentist will consider your clinical examination, dental history, and risk for developing cavities in determining the frequency for X-rays.
  • Treatment recommendations — If any oral health problems are identified during your examination, your dentist will make recommendations for the best next steps. These might include referral to another oral health care specialist, additional diagnostic tests, or advice to return for restoration work or additional oral health care.

If I am visiting a new dentist for the first time, what essential information do I need to share with the dentist?

Your new dentist will want to become familiar with your oral health so that he or she can notice changes or problems more easily during future visits. First, however, even before assessing your oral health, your dentist will want to know more about your general health. Areas that he or she will address with you include:

  • Medical history/current medicines — Your dentist will want to know if you have been diagnosed with any diseases. It is important to tell your dentist all of your health issues, not just those you think relate to your mouth. Several diseases, diabetes for example, can increase the risk of periodontal disease or might require that your dentist use a different anesthesia or take a different approach to treatments or prevention. Bring a list of all medicines you are currently taking and their dosages. Some medicines can cause dry mouth, which can increase your risk of cavities. Other important reasons why your dentist needs to know your medicines are so that he or she doesn’t prescribe a medicine that could interact with one you are already taking and to change the type of anesthesia given, if necessary.
  • Current dental health — Don’t hesitate to tell your dentist if you think you have a new cavity, sensitive teeth, feel any lumps or bumps, or have any oral health concerns. By informing your dentist of any symptoms you might be experiencing, you might help him or her make an early diagnosis.
  • Dental fears — Let your dentist know if you have any fears about going to the dentist or receiving dental care. Dental treatments have changes drastically from years ago and so have pain management options. Your dentist will discuss ways to ease your fears, minimize pain, and make you feel more comfortable.

My dentist’s office called to inform me that my next appointment would be a comprehensive exam. What does this involve?

Comprehensive dental exams not only check for tooth decay and gum health but also examine your entire mouth, head, and neck area. This type of exam is generally given if you are a first-time patient to a new dentist, but should also be given periodically by any dentist you’ve been visiting for years. The comprehensive exam will likely include these evaluations:

  • Head and neck — Your dentist will look for any problems on the exterior surface of your head and neck, as well as feel for any swelling or tenderness (which are signs of an infection or disease) in your lymph nodes and salivary glands in your neck area. Your dentist will also examine your temporomandibular joint to determine if it is working properly.
  • Soft tissue — The soft tissues of your mouth include the tongue, inside of the lips and cheeks, and the floor and roof of the mouth. Your dentist will examine these areas for spots, lesions, cuts, swellings, or growths that could indicate an oral health problem. Your dentist will also inspect the back of your throat and tonsil area.
  • Gum tissue—. Your dentist will examine your gums and supporting structures of the teeth. Your dentist will look for signs of gum disease, which include red or puffy gum tissue and tissue that easily bleeds when gently poked. If your dentist determines you have gum disease, he or she might send you to a periodontist.
  • Occlusion —Your dentist will check how well your upper and lower teeth come together. Your dentist might simply look at how your teeth meet, or he or she might take wax impressions of your teeth if a more careful exam of "your bite" is necessary.
  • Clinical examination of teeth — Your dentist will check for signs of tooth decay by examining the surface of every tooth. He or she will likely poke your teeth with a dental instrument, called an explorer, to look for cavities. (Decayed enamel feels softer when poked compared to healthy enamel.) Your dentist will also check for any problems with fillings, braces, bridges, dentures, crowns, or other restorations.
  • X-rays — Your dentist will take X-rays to look for signs of tooth decay, as well as for gum disease and other oral health problems.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 2/23/2009...#11187


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