Regular dental exams are a critical part of preventive health care. During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will clean your teeth and check for cavities and gum disease. The exam includes evaluating your risk of developing other oral problems and checking your face, neck and mouth for abnormalities. A dental exam might also include dental X-rays (radiographs) or other diagnostic procedures.
Your dentist or hygienist will likely discuss your diet and oral hygiene habits and might demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques. Other topics might include lifestyle factors that can affect oral health and possible cosmetic improvements to your teeth.
Why it’s done
Regular dental exams help protect not just your oral health, but also your overall health. For instance, signs and symptoms of some systemic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and diabetes, might show up in the mouth first. If your hygienist or dentist finds indications of disease, he or she will suggest that you see your doctor.
Also, the exam gives your dentist a chance to provide tips on caring for your teeth and to detect oral health problems early — when they’re most treatable.
Routine dental exams are important to maintaining healthy teeth and gums. Additionally, they can help to avoid the financial costs associated with problems that may persist or worsen over time resulting in larger and more expensive problems later on. It is recommended twice yearly checkups for people of all ages. At this frequency, most problems can be caught while they remain in an early stage.
A dental X-ray allows the dentist to see detailed images of specific sections of your mouth to help diagnose problems not visible during the dental exam. X-rays aren’t typically needed at every dental visit, and your dentist or hygienist will discuss with you the need for X-rays based on your oral health and risk of disease.
Radiation exposure from dental X-rays is very low, especially from digital X-rays now used, but talk to the dentist if you’re concerned.
ORAL CANCER SCREENINGS
During your dental exam, your dentist or hygienist will look for signs of oral cancer. He or she will feel the area under your jaw, the sides of your neck, and the insides of your lips and cheeks, as well as examine the sides of your tongue and the roof and floor of your mouth.
Dentists have the skills and tools to ensure that early signs and symptoms of oral cancer and pre-cancerous conditions are identified. The most common symptoms of oral cancer include:
- Red or white spots or sores anywhere in the oral cavity
- A sore that bleeds easily or does not heal
- A lump, thickening, or rough spot
- Pain, tenderness, or numbness anywhere in the mouth or on the lips
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue
The best way to prevent oral cancer is to avoid all tobacco products and only drink alcohol in moderation.
Maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Limit your exposure to the sun and always wear UV-A/B-blocking, sun-protective lotions on your skin as well as your lips. During your next dental appointment, ask your dentist to perform an oral exam. Early detection of oral cancer can improve the chance of successful treatment.
In some cases, the dentist might recommend making a dental impression of one or both jaws to produce a replica of your teeth and oral tissues. This can help the dentist or hygienist evaluate your bite or make a mouthguard or bleaching trays.
The dentist or hygienist will fill horseshoe-shaped trays with a soft, gelatin-like material and place them over your upper or lower teeth. After a few minutes, the trays are removed and used to create a dental cast of your mouth. The dentist might also have you bite down on a soft material to record and evaluate your bite.
A professional dental cleaning at least twice a year can improve your oral health. The dentist or hygienist performing your cleaning will have the opportunity to remove any hardened plaque and tartar that have accumulated on the teeth. Even with careful brushing and flossing it is still difficult to ensure teeth are 100% free of plaque and tartar at home. That is why twice a year it is recommended you visit your dentist for a professional cleaning!
What To Expect on a Routine Dental Exam
Medical History Intake
Once you get into your dentist’s office, the dentist will ask you a few questions that will help them discover more about your oral health. You will be required to offer information about the medications you’re currently taking, possible healing remedies currently in progress, allergies, and whether you smoke or consume alcohol.
The dentist must ask if you have any medical conditions for which you are undergoing treatment. Once you answer all these questions, the dentist may ask you about your previous dental treatment procedures, surgeries, and your experience with anesthesia. With all this information, the dentist will be able to make an essential first step towards establishing a sound treatment plan.
After collecting all the information needed, the dentist will move to the second step, which involves a thorough investigation of your teeth, gums, jaw, and supporting structures. Here are what dentists use and look for during the examination.
After scraping, cleaning, and checking for other abnormalities, the dentist will treat you and spend time with you discussing the discoveries and concerns. They may advise you to see an expert if you have a serious problem and will also guide you on how to take care of your teeth to avoid future problems.
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.
Why are dental exams so important?
Even if you take good care of your teeth and gums at home, you still need to see a dentist regularly. Your dentist can check for problems that you might not know exist. A dental exam allows your dentist to detect any problems early when they are easiest to treat and monitor the progression of dental issues.
How often should I see my dentist?
Two dentist visits a year are recommended for most patients. Your dentist may request to see you more often if you have ongoing oral health problems. Seeing your dentist every 6 months allows him/her to:
- Find early signs of decay (you won’t know that decay is in its advanced stages until it becomes visible or cause pain)
- Check for problems that you might not see or feel
- Treat other oral health problems
What should I do between dental visits?
It is important to take good care of your teeth and gums between regular dental visits. Doing so helps prevent cavities and other oral health problems from worsening. Here are some tips on practicing good oral care at home:
- Brush your teeth at least twice a day and use fluoride toothpaste.
- Floss daily to remove any food and plaque between your teeth and gum line. Use a mouthwash to help control plaque.
- Use a mouthwash to help control plaque bacteria.
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:
- Heart problems
- Immune system disorders
- Recent surgery
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.