A visit to the dentist has always been a nerve-wracking experience for many people. But going to the dentist during COVID-19, elicits a new kind of fear. Social distancing and mask-wearing—the two most important actions you can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19—are impossible when you’re in the dentist’s chair.
The good news: To date, there have not been any clusters of COVID-19 cases reported in dental settings or among dental healthcare personnel, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The caveat: We don’t yet have any data to assess the risk of transmitting coronavirus during a dentist visit.
So what should you do with that information (or lack thereof), especially if you’re due for a cleaning?
We asked the experts—American Dental Association (ADA) spokesperson Cheryl Watson-Lowry, DDS, owner of Watson and Watson Dental Association in Chicago, and Pia Lieb, DDS, founder of Cosmetic Dentistry Center NYC—whether it’s wise to visit your dentist right now, what new health protocols you can expect at your appointment, and tips for taking care of your chompers at home. Here’s everything you need to know.
Is it safe to go to the dentist during COVID-19?
When coronavirus first swept across the country in March, the majority of dentist offices ceased regular operations and, in accordance with CDC guidance at the time, saw patients for emergency reasons only. In May, when that guidance was updated, many dentist offices reopened with new health protocols in place and started offering routine cleanings and other non-emergency services again. As of mid-July, 98% of dental offices in the U.S. were open and patient volume was 71% of pre-COVID-19 levels, according to data from the ADA Health Policy Institute.
But is it smart to see your dentist right now?
Yes, says Watson-Lowry. And it’s not just smart—it’s crucial for your overall health. “Unfortunately, dental disease, including cavities, won’t wait for COVID-19 to end,” she says. “It’s extremely important for patients to continue to see their dentist for their regular checkups and cleanings—even during this time—because the longer patients wait and go without preventative care and treatment for early disease, the more likely their untreated disease will progress. And then that can lead to more extensive problems and increase the time and the costs for necessary care.”
Sub-par oral hygiene, she adds, can affect more than just your mouth. “Gum disease is an inflammatory disease and it can affect the rest of your body,” she says.
Also, routine dental exams aren’t just about buffing up your pearly whites—your dentist is likely screening for oral cancer, performing a head and neck exam, and inspecting your lymph nodes, tongue, throat, gums, and other tissues in your mouth to make sure everything is healthy, says Watson-Lowry. For these reasons, you should get regular dental check-ups every six months, she says.
Of course we’re still in the throes of a global pandemic, which is why both the ADA and CDC have issued guidelines on how dentists can continue to provide this important care while minimizing the risk of transmitting COVID-19 among patients and staff. These guidelines include steps like screening patients for coronavirus before treatment, mandating patients wear masks pre and post exams, limiting the number of people in the office, thoroughly disinfecting rooms and equipment in between patients, requiring staff to don PPE, and using tools that reduce the amount of aerosols released during exams and procedures.
If you have concerns about getting oral care during COVID-19, definitely voice those worries to your dental office, says Waston-Lowry. “A patient has to feel comfortable,” she says. “But they also do have to understand that [disinfecting things] is what we do day in and day out.” If your dentist is following the ADA and CDC guidelines, then you “should feel really comfortable coming in,” she says.