What is a dental exam?
A dental exam is a checkup of your teeth and gums. Most children and adults should get a dental exam every six months. These exams are important for protecting oral health. Oral health problems can become serious and painful if not treated promptly.
Dental exams are usually performed by both a dentist and a dental hygienist. A dentist is a doctor specially trained to care for teeth and gums. A dental hygienist is a health care professional trained to clean teeth and help patients maintain good oral health habits. Although dentists can treat people of all ages, children often go to pediatric dentists. Pediatric dentists are dentists who have received additional training to focus on dental care for children.
Other names: dental checkup, oral exam
Why do I need a dental exam?
Most adults and children should get a dental exam every six months. If you have swollen, bleeding gums (known as gingivitis) or other gum disease, your dentist may want to see you more often. Some adults with gum disease may see a dentist three or four times a year. More frequent exams may help prevent a serious gum disease known as periodontitis. Periodontitis can lead to infection and tooth loss.
Babies should have their first dental appointment within six months of getting their first tooth, or by 12 months of age. After that, they should get an exam every six months, or according to the recommendation of your child's dentist. Also, your child may need to have more frequent visits if the dentist finds a problem with tooth development or other another oral health issue.
What happens during a dental exam?
A typical dental exam will include a cleaning by a hygienist, x-rays on certain visits, and a checkup of your mouth by the dentist.
During a cleaning:
- You or your child will sit in a large chair. A bright overhead light will shine above you. The hygienist will clean your teeth using small, metal dental tools. He or she will scrape your teeth to remove plaque and tartar. Plaque is a sticky film that contains bacteria and coats teeth. If plaque builds up on teeth, it turns into tartar, a hard mineral deposit that can get trapped at the bottom of teeth.
- The hygienist will floss your teeth.
- He or she will brush your teeth, using a special electric toothbrush.
- He or she may then apply a fluoride gel or foam to your teeth. Fluoride is a mineral that prevents tooth decay. Tooth decay can lead to cavities. Fluoride treatments are given to children more often than to adults.
- The hygienist or dentist may give you tips on how to care for your teeth, including proper brushing and flossing techniques.
Dental x-rays are images that can show cavities, gum disease, bone loss, and other problems that can't be seen by just looking at the mouth.
During an x-ray, the dentist or hygienist will:
- Place a thick covering, called a lead apron, over your chest. You may get an additional covering for your neck to protect your thyroid gland. These coverings protect the rest of your body from radiation.
- Have you bite down on a small piece of plastic.
- Place a scanner outside your mouth. He or she will take a picture, while standing behind a protective shield or other area.
- For certain types of x-rays, you will repeat this process, biting down in different areas of your mouth, as instructed by the dentist or hygienist.
There are different types of dental x-rays. A type called a full-mouth series may be taken once every few years to check your overall oral health. Another type, called bitewing x-rays, may be used more often to check for cavities or other tooth problems.
During the dentist's checkup, the dentist will:
- Check your x-rays, if you've had them, for cavities or other problems.
- Look at your teeth and gums to see if they are healthy.
- Check the bite (the way the top and bottom teeth fit together). If there is a bite problem, you may be referred to an orthodontist.
- Check for oral cancer. This includes feeling under your jaw, checking the insides of your lips, the sides of your tongue, and on the roof and floor of your mouth.
In addition to the above checks, a pediatric dentist may check to see if your child's teeth are developing normally.
Will I need to do anything to prepare for a dental exam?
If you have certain health conditions, you may need to take antibiotics before your exam. These conditions include:
If you're not sure whether you need to take antibiotics, talk to your dentist and/or other health care provider.
Also, some people feel anxious about going to the dentist. If you or your child feels this way, you may want to talk to the dentist beforehand. He or she may be able to help you or your child feel more relaxed and comfortable during the exam.
Are there any risks to a dental exam?
There is very little risk to having a dental exam. The cleaning may be uncomfortable, but it is not usually painful.
Dental x-rays are safe for most people. The dose of radiation in an x-ray is very low. But x-rays are not usually recommended for pregnant women, unless it's an emergency. Be sure to tell your dentist if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant.
What do the results mean?
Results may include one or more of the following conditions:
- A cavity
- Gingivitis or other gum problems
- Bone loss or tooth development problems
If results show that you or your child has a cavity, you probably will need to make another appointment with the dentist to treat it. If you have questions about how cavities are treated, talk to the dentist.
If results show that you have gingivitis or other gum problems, your dentist may recommend:
- Improving your brushing and flossing habits.
- More frequent dental cleanings and/or dental exams.
- Using a medicated mouth rinse.
- That you see a periodontist, a specialist in diagnosing and treating gum disease.
If bone loss or tooth development problems are found, you may need more tests and/or dental treatments.
Is there anything else I need to know about a dental exam?
To keep your mouth healthy, you'll need to take good care of your teeth and gums, both by having regular dental exams and practicing good dental habits at home. Good home oral care includes the following steps:
- Brush your teeth twice a day using a soft-bristled brush. Brush for about two minutes.
- Use a toothpaste that has fluoride. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay and cavities.
- Floss at least once a day. Flossing removes plaque, which can damage teeth and gums.
- Replace your toothbrush every three or four months.
- Eat a healthy diet, avoiding or limiting sweets and sugary drinks. If you do eat or drink sweets, brush your teeth soon after.
- Don't smoke. Smokers have more oral health problems than nonsmokers.
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