MY TONGUE FIRST detected the problem when it caught a sharp edge on my teeth: A hefty hunk of my back right molar was missing. I’m not sure how it happened, but it meant that after months of avoiding any sort of physical closeness with other people, I needed to brave the dentist’s chair.
With the pandemic raging across the United States, the office I entered in Alexandria, Virginia, looked very different from the one I had visited months before. Two cups of pens sat on the receptionist’s desk, one for “clean” writing utensils and the other for those recently used. A plexiglass partition divided me from the rest of the office behind, and everyone—myself included—donned a mask.
Dental work is a uniquely risky environment for spreading SARS-CoV-2, since medical practitioners work face-to-face with open-mouthed patients for extended periods of time. “We, unfortunately, work in a danger zone,” says Mark Wolff, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.
Yet with the proper precautions, dentists argue that the risk of patients catching COVID-19 during dental visits is minimal—and delaying routine care is a major health concern that can lead to problems outside the mouth; gum disease is linked to other chronic conditions, such as heart disease. Here’s what you should look for to feel safe before hopping back into the dentist’s chair during the pandemic.
What are the risks at the dentist?
SARS-CoV-2 spreads through the mist spewed as people breathe, talk, cough, and more. People may inhale these globs or touch contaminated surfaces and then rub their eyes, nose, or mouth. Common tools in dentistry, such as drills and ultrasonic cleaners, can also generate itty bitty particles, known as aerosols, that potentially harbor infectious coronavirus and can linger in the air for minutes to hours. (Learn more about the airborne spread of coronavirus.)
In March 2020, when information about SARS-CoV-2 was scarce, the American Dental Association (ADA) called for practitioners to delay non-emergency care to limit possible viral spread. The move also helped preserve personal protective equipment for frontline hospital workers amid severe shortages. The ADA, in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, assembled a team of experts to study how to reopen safely—and by May, routine dentistry recommenced across the nation with new recommendations for safety.
“We look at what is safe for our patients,” says ADA president Chad Gehani. “That’s our number one priority: What is in the best interest of the public.”
Should I go to the dentist if it’s not an emergency?
In general, yes—with a few caveats.
Delaying dental care poses considerable risks to long-term health, Gehani argues. Not only can non-severe conditions, like a cracked filling, dramatically worsen if ignored, but even simple cleanings are vital. For example, there’s a “definite link” between gum health and diabetes, as well as a connection with heart disease, he says. Dental cleanings can stabilize gum condition.
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