This feature was written by Studio MSP writers. While some of our advertisers were sourced, no advertiser paid to be included.
The pandemic changed just about every aspect of our lives, and dental health is no exception. The pandemic prompted many to put their dental care on the back burner. Whether it was fueled by worries about safety or changes to their dental hygiene habits, numerous people shifted how they care for their oral health.
More than half of Americans report that fears related to COVID-19 caused them to put off dental checkups, according to the American Association of Endodontists. Its survey also found that 32 percent of respondents said they have experienced a disruption to their usual dental hygiene habits from being constantly at home during the pandemic.
Dr. Chad Boger saw this play out during the past year at Boger Dental in Plymouth. “There are certainly people who stayed away and who still have not come back in, and plenty of people who were excited to come back and get their teeth cleaned. They heard information that it was safe,” he says. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel when the masks will be coming off, so it’s a good time to put your best smile forward.”
There are plenty of reasons to end your dental break. Read on for 11 reasons to make (or not miss!) that appointment.
1. Safety is Paramount
Safety has always been a top priority at dentists’ offices, with dentists and hygienists wearing masks and gloves long before we ever heard of COVID. “Dentists have been using universal precautions for decades, going back to the AIDS epidemic. We’ve made some changes because COVID is spread by aerosols and droplets,” explains Dr. Donna Hecker, a prosthodontist at City West Prosthodontics in Chanhassen. “Now, instead of masks, we have N95 respirators, and we have goggles and face shields instead of open-sided glasses.”
Many dental clinics added other safety precautions, like air purifiers, high-volume suction, and clearing the air in exam rooms between patients. At Boger’s office, the team also uses hypochlorous acid foggers—similar to systems used by airlines—to neutralize aerosols between patients. These precautions, and many more, have enhanced safety at dental offices, Hecker says. In addition, only about 1 percent of dentists and 3 percent of dental hygienists have contracted the virus.
All this makes dental offices extremely safe environments for receiving care. “There is really not a reason to not do dental treatments,” says Dr. John Cretzmeyer of Dentistry for the Entire Family in Fridley.
2. Don’t Pause Prevention
Regular dental checkups serve an important purpose: cleaning, screening, and monitoring current and brewing problems. They are essential to preventing concerns like tooth decay, gum disease, fractured teeth, and oral cancer from emerging or getting out of control, says Dr. David Cook of Smiles at France in Minneapolis. At dental appointments, hygienists remove harmful deposits from teeth and bacteria from gums that home brushing and flossing can’t remove—before they start causing serious damage.
“These preventive appointments are so important. You get a fresh start each time,” Cook says. “We do less dentistry for people who come in regularly.” In fact, dentists found that most patients who faithfully receive checkups rode out the pandemic with awfully good oral health. Those who don’t—and people who put off care during the pandemic—did not fare as well, says Dr. Gesica Horn of Serene Oaks Dental in North Oaks.
“In fact, dentists found that most patients who faithfully receive check-ups rode out the pandemic with awfully good oral health.” —Dr. Gesica Horn, Serene Oaks Dental
3. Catch Problems Early
Dentists caution that oral health troubles don’t vanish on their own. It’s important to detect a cavity when it’s small to keep it from causing an infection or an abscess, which often leads to a root canal, crown, or extraction. “It’s really wise to take care of something sooner rather than later because it almost always becomes more complex,” Cook says.
Dental problems are sneaky in that they can be brewing long before people are aware, explains Dr. Erin Allen of Allen and Holm Family and Cosmetic Dentistry in Burnsville. “Our teeth are really bad at telling us something is wrong. By the time our teeth and gums are hurting, the condition is often very advanced,” she says. “Dental disease is very progressive, and if it isn’t managed in time, they go from small, easy-to-treat issues to very complex and extensive problems.”
Hecker agrees, noting that “the longer people kick the can down the road, the more expensive it’s going to be.” Hecker should know. Her specialty as a prosthodontist means she sees this progression often with patients. Many have a host of cascading problems, including teeth that fell out due to untreated gum disease or tooth decay.
4. Warding Off Oral Cancer
It’s one of the shortest parts of your dental visit, but it’s a vital component. When your provider puts gauze on your tongue and moves it around, they are looking for signs of oral cancer. Early indicators include a growth or sore that doesn’t go away, and it can appear on your lips, tongue, cheek, throat, mouth floor, and hard or soft palate. Caught early, it is highly treatable. But it can be life-threatening if it’s not. “Everyone is at risk for oral cancer. If you’re not looking, you don’t find anything,” explains Hecker, who has a subspeciality in patients with oral cancer.
Hecker has rebuilt patients’ mouths after they lost jawbone or teeth from cancer treatment. She has heard from many grateful patients whose dentist or hygienist caught their cancer early during screenings. And it’s not just people who use tobacco or alcohol who should be concerned about oral cancer. The human papillomavirus is a significant cause of oral cancer, Hecker says, making anyone susceptible.
“Everyone is at risk for oral cancer. If you’re not looking, you don’t find anything.” —Dr. Donna Hecker, City West Prosthodontics
5. A Flurry of Fixes
Even if you have let your dental care go—starting before or during the seemingly endless stay-at-home—it’s never too late to have an oral health or cosmetic problem addressed. Dentists offer a wide array of solutions to return your smile to glory, Horn says. Whether you need to fix chipped or cracked teeth, rebuild worn-down teeth, or get an implant to replace a missing tooth, dentists have a solution that fits your budget and your tolerance for time in their chair. Also, they’ve seen it all, so there’s no need for embarrassment when something has gotten really bad. “There’s not anything we can’t fix, but it is a matter of the size of deficit we are in,” Horn says. “There is always something that can be done to right the ship.”
“We’re learning a lot more about the relationship between oral health and systemic health, and we know that systemic conditions like diabetes are intricately connected to conditions like gum disease.” —Dr. Erin Allen, Allen and Holm Family and Cosmetic Dentistry
6. Healthy Mouth, Healthy Body
Your mouth isn’t in a bubble by itself, so it’s no surprise that poor oral health affects your overall well-being. Seeing dental providers regularly to keep your teeth and gums in excellent condition goes a long way toward maintaining good overall health. “We’re learning a lot more about the relationship between oral health and systemic health, and we know that systemic conditions like diabetes are intricately connected to conditions like gum disease,” Allen says.
The plaque that builds up on teeth leads to gingivitis, an early stage of gum disease. Plaque is a bacteria-laden film that grows in the pockets around the teeth and hardens on them, forming tartar. When it isn’t removed on a regular basis, it leads to inflammation that causes bleeding gums, receding gums, and the potential loss of teeth, Allen says.
Such oral bacteria and gum disease can take a toll on health in the form of heart disease, some cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and pregnancy complications, reports the American Academy for Oral Systemic Health. In the most serious cases, bacteria from an oral infection can enter the bloodstream and affect the heart or brain, Allen says.
Dentists often see you more regularly than your medical doctor, giving them insight into your overall health. Dr. Holger Meiser of Holger Dental Group in Minnetonka, along with many other dentists, seeks to provide comprehensive dental care that evaluates patients’ overall wellness. That entails using diagnoses like bleeding gums or inflammation to look for symptoms of other health concerns, such as sleep apnea or diabetes.
“We have switched from a reactive care approach to a proactive care approach so that we can mitigate risks,” Meiser says. For example, he may replace large, old fillings before patients crack a tooth. “People are starting to realize that in order to take care of [their bodies], oral health is part of that. I think COVID has pushed people to look for ways to be healthier to fight off viruses and infections.”
7. Prioritizing Gum Health
One emerging predictor of how someone will respond to COVID is the health of their gums. For people with periodontal (gum) disease, responses have not been good. Gum disease is an inflammatory condition, which means that your immune system is so focused on healing that inflammation that it doesn’t have the resources to fight viruses like COVID, Meiser says. He cites a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Periodontology. It found that people with gum disease were 3.5 times more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit with COVID, 4.5 times more likely to require a ventilator, and 9 times more likely to die from the virus.
That’s why it is vital to stay on top of routine cleanings to keep gum disease under control. Though twice-yearly visits are enough for most people, others, like those with periodontal disease, often need to come in three to four times a year for deeper cleanings, Meiser says.
“We always urge patients to keep on top of their periodontal health because it keeps the inflammatory process under control,” Cretzmeyer says. “Then your immune system is available to deal with the bad guys coming in, and it’s not dealing with the effects of poor periodontal health.”
“We have switched from a reactive care approach to a proactive care approach so that we can mitigate risks.” —Dr. Holger Meiser, Holger Dental Group
8. Flex Time
With few reasons to leave our abodes for meetings, work travel, and far-flung vacations, a hallmark of stay-home life is an emptier calendar. In general, people have fewer obligations—and the kids haven’t been in person at school much—making it easier to schedule dental appointments, says Dr. Walter Palmer of River Bluff Dental in Bloomington.
“We see a lot of businesspeople and executives, and they have had more time to come in for cosmetic work. The change in the corporate climate has made it easier for people to schedule appointments,” Palmer says. “By fall, classes will be in person again, so it’s a good time to get the kids in for dental or orthodontic care while they have the time to do it.”
9. Up Close and Personal
Many people have dental flaws that irk them. For some, those woes become more apparent with endless video calls (like working in front of a mirror all day). Now that you’ve had your close-up and didn’t like what you saw, follow the lead of many of Horn’s patients and refresh your smile. “We’re seeing the ‘Zoom effect’ of people wanting to come out of the pandemic vaccinated and looking their best,” Horn says. “They want the smile they used to have or that they never had.”
10. Post-Mask Readiness
Some dentists have noticed that patients are preparing for a time when our masks can be put away and we start seeing each other in person again. Cook reports that more patients than usual are interested in cosmetic dental care, especially whitening and work on their front teeth. Even when their smile is a work in progress, people don’t seem to mind because their mask conceals all.
“Now is the time to have things done so that when our masks come off, you can put your best smile forward,” Boger says. “We’ve realized how much we miss seeing people’s smiles. We’re going to appreciate smiles more when we can see them without masks.”
11. Restore Your Confidence
When people improve their smiles, they often get an ego boost. Dentists see the transformation all the time, and many patients tell them they wish they had fixed their teeth sooner. After a year-plus of living in loungewear (no shame!), it’s time to spruce up your smile, lose the sweats, and regain some of your verve. Focusing on your dental health—and even improving your smile—is one way to boost your image and your confidence, Cook says. “People want to make a good impression, and they’re going to want to show off a healthy smile.”
This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.