What Does a Dentist Do? What to Expect During a Routine Checkup

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Fretting about what a dentist does can give you anxiety about going to the dentist. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 40 percent of adults and 20 percent of children don't see a dentist regularly.

However, if you don't go regularly, you might wonder, "What does a dentist do during these visits, exactly?" To maintain a healthy mouth, brushing and flossing aren't always enough. You also need to see a dentist for preventive checkups. This is what you can expect:

Dental X-Rays

Routine dental X-rays are frequently taken at checkup visits. They can reveal cavities between your teeth, the health and height of the supporting bone and the position of developing teeth in children. While there are many types, your dentist will decide which X-rays will give the best diagnostic view and how many are needed. A dental hygienist, according to the American Dental Association (ADA), may take the X-rays.

Oral Examination

During a routine checkup, hygienists can do many things, but more advanced tasks, like cavity fillings, are left to the dentist (but she will assist). Who works on your mouth will be looking for basic oral hygiene concerns and areas to address, like the following:

  • Decay Detection: Your dentist and hygienist look for visible signs of tooth decay and if any tooth enamel has softened. This is often an indicator of a cavity in its early stages.
  • Pocket Measurements: To determine the health of your gums and supporting bone, your dentist or hygienist uses a periodontal probe to measure the pockets around your teeth, according to the ADA. This measurement is a marker of whether bone has been lost to gum disease.
  • Bite Evaluation: During an oral exam, a dentist will evaluate your bite and look for any irregularities that could compromise your dental health. And dentists closely monitor the development and eruption pattern of children's teeth so orthodontic referrals can be done at the proper time.

Oral Cancer Screening

Because early detection is vital in successful oral cancer treatments, dentists do screenings at all checkups. Your dentist will examine your head, neck and lips, as well as your mouth tissues, including all surfaces of the tongue, for any unusual signs or symptoms. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research recommends dentists discuss the link between tobacco and alcohol use and oral cancer with their patients.

Scaling and Polishing

Dentists strongly recommend their patients have their teeth routinely cleaned to keep their gum tissue healthy and prevent periodontal disease. Either the dentist or a licensed dental hygienist will use instruments to scale off any hardened plaque called tartar, and then polish your teeth with a special paste to remove stain and polish the enamel. Most people will agree, the squeaky-clean feeling in your mouth after a cleaning is wonderful. And Colgate® Tartar Protection with Whitening Toothpaste can help you keep that clean feeling longer.

Fluoride Treatment

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends topical fluoride treatments for children to strengthen their tooth enamel, during the years when they're most prone to cavities. These are usually done after the teeth have been cleaned and the frequency depends on your child's risk for cavities. Fluoride treatments are also helpful for adults dealing with situations that increase their chances for decay.

Sealant Application

Since most decay in children occurs on the chewing surface of the back molars, your dentist may suggest sealants for these teeth. The procedure is simple and painless, can be done by a hygienist according to the ADA, and the sealant material, which acts as a protective barrier against bacteria and food particles, can last from five to 10 years.

Home Care Instruction

During this visit, usually the hygienist will go over your specific home care needs. She'll give instructions on proper brushing and flossing techniques, tips on foods to avoid and ideas for better snacking choices. This is also a good time for you to ask any questions you might have about your oral health.

So the next time you ask, "What does a dentist do?," remember the wise words of Ben Franklin: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Regular dental visits can help preserve your teeth and smile for a lifetime.