Visiting the Dentist’s Office During the COVID-19 Pandemic

June 22, 2020

Routine visits to the dentist’s office were put on hold when the offices were closed in mid-March. The COVID-19 pandemic made practicing routine dentistry too dangerous for both staff and patients. But preventative dental and oral care are vital to our overall health. Visits to both dental hygienists and dentists help prevent some problems from starting in the first place. They can also catch many dental and oral problems before they get serious.

Dental infections and sepsis

Infections anywhere in your mouth can be serious and can lead to sepsis, what used to be called blood poisoning. This is the body’s toxic and often deadly response to infection. Regular dental check-ups can help find problems that could lead to an infection, such as a cracked tooth or the start of a sore or abscess. The only way to prevent sepsis is to prevent infections from occurring in the first place.

Another important aspect to regular dental check-ups is that dentists can detect some medical problems that may show in the mouth before you notice any other symptoms. For example, a dental x-ray could show signs of bone loss, leading to a suspicion of osteoporosis. People with chronic mouth ulcers, dry mouth, chronically bad breath, or gum disease could have diabetes, leukemia, even heart disease. These findings could allow an earlier medical diagnosis.

Your dentist’s office likely continued with urgent and emergency procedures

“On March 16, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommended that dentists postpone all but urgent and emergency dental procedures until April 6,” Chad P. Gehani, DDS, President of the ADA, said in an email interview. “The recommendation was extended until April 30.” The decision allowed dentists help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but it also helped conserve essential personal protective equipment (PPE) usually used by dentists, leaving the supplies for their medical colleagues on the front line. However, the ADA also realized that offices could not be closed completely. If dentists did not perform urgent and emergency procedures, patients experiencing these issues would go to emergency rooms, which would put them at added risk of contracting the infection and placing more burden on the emergency system.

Reopening dentists’ offices

Dentists’ offices started reopening as of June 19, using the ADA Return to Work Interim Guidance Toolkit. The ADA drew up guidelines for new and updated procedures related to the pandemic, and to help provide an extra layer of protection for everyone. “The ADA’s interim guidance builds upon the already strong infection prevention protocols in place in dental offices and is based on the best-available scientific evidence. The guidance includes specific recommendations before, during and after dental appointments,” Dr. Gehani explained.

It won’t be the dentist office you remember

Reopening a dental practice mid-pandemic requires a lot of decisions and planning to keep everyone safe while providing the best dental care possible. The approach is not a one-size-fits-all though, as adaptations must be made according to the size and layout of the office, how many hours they will operate, and more. “You might see changes around the office at the front desk and in exam rooms, and even before you arrive at the office,” Dr. Gehani said. Offices may pre-screen patients and take temperatures when patients arrive. “The office changes may include waiting room chairs spaced at least six feet apart and less reading materials or toys in the waiting room—or you may even be asked to wait in your car until it is time to be seated for treatment. Dental staff will be wearing additional personal protective equipment like face shields, gowns and masks.”

If you’re still nervous about going to your dentist’s office

Dentists advise that patients resume regular dental visits now that practices have reopened. Bu, some people are still nervous and may decide to postpone these routine visits to the dentist’s office until they feel more comfortable. “It’s important to note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) no longer recommends postponing elective procedures in dental settings,” Dr. Gehani pointed out.

That being said, if you choose to delay routine visits, watch your oral health carefully to prevent emergencies. This means regularly brushing and flossing your teeth. And not using your teeth to open packages or bite into something hard, which can cause breaks or chips. “In case of an emergency, consult your dentist right away,” Dr. Gehani said. “A dentist or dental staff will be able to triage your case and determine the proper next steps. Dentists will be able to help over the phone before seeing the patient in person.”

“There may be patients with issues that have become urgent due to not being able to see a dentist in the last couple of months. Those who need crowns replaced, fillings or bridges, for example, may need to take priority over those who are due for a cleaning,” Dr. Gehani added.

What you can do

If it’s time to visit your dentist’s office or if you’re experiencing discomfort in your mouth, don’t delay making an appointment. The ADA has a page that addresses what to expect when your dentist’s office reopens. If you’re still concerned call the office and speak to the staff there. They will be able to answer your specific questions and hopefully calm your fears.

To learn more about sepsis and related conditions, visit the Sepsis and…. library.