Regular dental exams are a critical part of preventive health care.
During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will clean your teeth and check for cavities and gum disease. The exam includes evaluating your risk of developing other oral problems and checking your face, neck and mouth for abnormalities. A dental exam might also include dental X-rays (radiographs) or other diagnostic procedures.
Your dentist or hygienist will likely discuss your diet and oral hygiene habits and might demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques. Other topics might include lifestyle factors that can affect oral health and possible cosmetic improvements to your teeth.
Regular dental exams help protect not just your oral health, but also your overall health. For instance, signs and symptoms of some systemic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and diabetes, might show up in the mouth first. If your hygienist or dentist finds indications of disease, he or she will suggest that you see your doctor.
Also, the exam gives your dentist a chance to provide tips on caring for your teeth and to detect oral health problems early — when they're most treatable.
When to have a dental exam
The American Dental Association recommends that adults schedule regular dental exams at intervals determined by a dentist.
Even if you no longer have your natural teeth, it's important to see your dentist for regular dental exams to maintain your oral health and the usefulness of your replacement teeth.
If you're scheduling your first adult dental exam or you're looking for a new dentist, ask people you know for a recommendation. Consider the dentist's location and participation in your health plan. Make sure you understand the fees and payment options.
If you're anxious about having a dental exam, share your concerns with your dentist or hygienist. He or she might be able to adjust your treatment to help you feel more comfortable.
During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will:
- Evaluate your overall health and oral hygiene
- Evaluate your risk of tooth decay, root decay, and gum or bone disease
- Evaluate your need for tooth restoration or replacement
- Check your bite and jaw for problems
- Remove stains or deposits on your teeth
- Demonstrate proper cleaning techniques for your teeth or dentures
- Assess your need for fluoride
- Possibly take dental X-rays or, if necessary, do other diagnostic procedures
During a dental exam, your dentist or hygienist will also ask about your health problems or medications you take and discuss how they might affect your oral health. If you have diabetes, for example, you're at increased risk of gum disease.
Medications that contribute to dry mouth can increase your risk of tooth decay. If arthritis or another condition hampers your ability to brush your teeth, your dentist or hygienist might show you how to insert the handle of your toothbrush into a rubber ball to make gripping easier — or recommend an electric toothbrush.
If you have prosthetic replacements — such as dentures or bridges — your dentist or hygienist will examine how well they fit and discuss the need for adjustments.
Dental exams might also include counseling about diet, use of tobacco products and other lifestyle factors that can affect oral health.
A dental X-ray allows the dentist to see detailed images of specific sections of your mouth to help diagnose problems not visible during the dental exam. X-rays aren't typically needed at every dental visit, and your dentist or hygienist will discuss with you the need for X-rays based on your oral health and risk of disease.
Radiation exposure from dental X-rays is very low, especially from digital X-rays now used, but talk to the dentist if you're concerned.
Oral cancer exam
During your dental exam, your dentist or hygienist will look for signs of oral cancer. He or she will feel the area under your jaw, the sides of your neck, and the insides of your lips and cheeks, as well as examine the sides of your tongue and the roof and floor of your mouth.
In some cases, the dentist might recommend making a dental impression of one or both jaws to produce a replica of your teeth and oral tissues. This can help the dentist or hygienist evaluate your bite or make a mouthguard or bleaching trays.
The dentist or hygienist will fill horseshoe-shaped trays with a soft, gelatin-like material and place them over your upper or lower teeth. After a few minutes, the trays are removed and used to create a dental cast of your mouth. The dentist might also have you bite down on a soft material to record and evaluate your bite.
After your exam, the dentist or hygienist will discuss your oral health, including your risk of tooth decay, gum disease and other oral health problems, and preventive measures you can take to improve and protect your oral health.
The dentist or hygienist will also recommend when to return for a follow-up visit. If you are at high risk of tooth decay or gum disease or have other oral health problems, the dentist or hygienist might recommend frequent checkups. Treatment might be needed to address any of these findings and may be explained in a follow- up consultation appointment. Occasionally, some treatment might be conducted from the work of dental specialists depending on the complexity of the care suggested by your dentist. Just as the dentist uses a team to provide care, more complex care needs might include work from other dentists specializing in specific treatment such as oral surgery or gum treatment.