What is dental phobia and anxiety?

If you fear going to the dentist, you are not alone. Between 9% and 15% of Americans say they avoid going to the dentist because of anxiety or fear. People with dental anxiety have a sense of uneasiness about the upcoming dental appointment. They may also have exaggerated worries or fears.

Dental phobia is a more serious condition that leaves people panic-stricken and terrified. People with dental phobia have an awareness that the fear is totally irrational but are unable to do much to change it.

What causes dental phobia and anxiety?

Common reasons people develop dental phobia and anxiety include:

  • Fear of pain: Fear of pain is a common reason for avoiding the dentist. The fear usually stems from an early dental experience that was unpleasant or painful, or from dental "horror" stories they have heard. Thanks to the many advances in dentistry made over the years, most of today’s dental procedures involve considerably less pain and often none at all.
  • Fear of injection or that the injection won’t work: Many are terrified of needles, especially when inserted into the mouth. Others fear that the anesthesia hasn’t yet taken effect or isn’t a large enough dose to knock out pain before the procedure begins.
  • Fear of anesthetic side effects: Potential side effects of anesthesia such as dizziness, feeling faint, or nausea produce fear in some people. Others don’t like the numbness or "fat lip" associated with local anesthetics.
  • Feelings of helplessness and loss of control: As they sit in a dentist’s chair with mouth wide open, unable to see what’s going on, some people feel helpless and that they are out of control of the situation.
  • Embarrassment and loss of personal space: Many people are uncomfortable with the dentist or hygienist working so physically close to their face. Others may feel self-conscious about the appearance of their teeth or possible mouth odors.

What are the signs of dental phobia?

People with a dental phobia do everything possible to avoid going to the dentist, going only when forced to by extreme pain. Other signs of dental phobia include:

  • Trouble sleeping the night before the dental exam
  • Feelings of nervousness that worsen in the dentist’s waiting room
  • Getting to the dentist’s office but being unable to enter
  • Crying or feeling physically ill at the very thought of visiting the dentist
  • Intense uneasiness at the thought of, and actually when, a dentist or hygienist places objects in your mouth, suddenly feeling like it is difficult to breathe


Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/03/2017.


  • Moore R. Brødsgaard I, Rosenberg N. The contribution of embarrassment to phobic dental anxiety: a qualitative research study. BMC Psychiatry 2004 (Apr 19) 4:10.
  • American Society of Dentist Anesthesiologists. Sedation Accessed 4/20/2017.
  • Armfield JM, Milgrom P. A clinician guide to patients afraid of dental injections and numbness. SAAD DIG 2011(Jan 27):33-9.

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy