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Helping Dental Hygienists During National Dental Hygiene Month

October 12, 2021

When was the last time you had your teeth professionally cleaned and assessed? Did you know that dental hygienists are frontline healthcare workers who can help detect problems, such as infections that can lead to sepsis, or diseases like oral cancer? October is National Dental Hygiene Month, and in 2021, hygienists want to celebrate resilience. According to the American Dental Hygienist Association, “This October, we are turning our focus inward to honor the inner strength, dedication and endurance that has pulled us together – and through – some of the greatest challenges in our careers and personal lives.”

Dental hygienists at higher risk for contracting COVID-19

All healthcare professionals who work directly with patients are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than the general public. But dental hygienists are in a small group of professionals that are at even higher risk because of the scope of their work. They, along with dentists, dental assistants, and respiratory therapists, work solely with the mouth and the airway. SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is spread through droplets of air from an infected person. Infected patients could spread the virus through coughing, sneezing, or spitting droplets into the air. Not only are these professionals handling people who aren’t wearing a mask, but dental hygienists also use water spray to rinse their patients’ teeth during the cleaning. These sprays cause potentially contaminated droplets to go into the air.

A study published in June 2021 found that dental care professionals in the United Kingdom did have higher COVID-19 infection rates than the general population. Just over 16% of dentists, dental nurses, and dental hygienists in the study had SARS-CoV2 antibodies, compared with up to 7% among the general public. The study also included receptionists at the dental offices, who did not have the same kind of patient contact. They had the same number of cases as the general public.

Some dental practices restricted during early lockdowns

As states were trying to control the pandemic in early 2020, some ordered restrictions on dental offices. The American Dental Association (ADA) agreed. They could open for emergency or urgent cases, but routine care was discouraged.

Given the importance of good oral care in preventing illness, dental professionals pushed to keep the restrictions from happening again after they were lifted that May. The ADA developed a toolkit to help dental offices protect their patients and themselves as the pandemic continued. Patients began making appointments again and dental offices became busy once more. But this led to another problem. Dental hygienists now have a backlog of patients who waited months to come in. Cleanings are more involved and take longer to complete.

Tough work for the dental hygienists

Taking longer to complete tasks takes a toll on a hygienist’s own health. It is not easy to maintain good body mechanics all the time, explained Raiza Parada, a hygienist in Long Beach, CA, who was interviewed for an article in the Los Angeles Times. “The longer that the tartar … stays on the tooth surface, the more difficult it is to remove … We have to strive to maintain good ergonomics and posture to prevent injury to our bodies, all while trying to clean teeth using sharp metal instruments in a very slippery environment, while making the whole experience comfortable for patients.”

In addition, hygienists must wear a high level of personal protective equipment (PPE) whenever they are dealing with patients. This adds to their discomfort.

Helping dental hygienists

Dental hygienists have their job to do, but you can make it easier. Maintaining good oral hygiene is vital. Infections due to broken teeth, abscesses, or any opening in the gums can cause sepsis. If you have not seen a dental hygienist recently, consider making an appointment as soon as you can. If you are concerned about COVID-19 precautions, ask the office what they are doing to help protect the patients. While you are waiting for your appointment, pay special attention to your oral hygiene, especially towards the back of your mouth. This is where the teeth are harder to reach.

When you see the hygienist, mention any dental problems or pain, if any. Be aware that cleaning may take longer than usual if you have skipped appointments due to the pandemic. To learn more about the relationship between oral and dental health and sepsis, visit Sepsis and Dental Health, part of the Sepsis Alliance Sepsis and… library.