Dear Asking for a Friend,
I am way overdue for a trip to the dentist, but I’m worried about COVID – the cases are still pretty high. I am wondering what my risks actually are, and am I really damaging my oral health by not going?
Signed, Dental Anxiety
Dear Dental Anxiety,
COVID-19 has changed everything, including our oral health habits.
According to a recent survey, people are flossing less often, brushing their teeth later in the day and snacking on more sweets than usual. The majority of survey participants also revealed that in a time of pandemic, tooth pain would prompt them to book an appointment with their dentist. And while many people have relaxed their dental hygiene habits, inconsistent oral care could lead to serious dental problems, the survey reveals.
“It’s been a trying time for everyone and the stress has been showing up in our mouths,” says Lesli Hapak, president at the Ontario Dental Association. “The number of people grinding and clenching their teeth has skyrocketed and even a change in eating habits can negatively impact teeth. These issues can lead to broken fillings, cracked teeth, root canals, gum disease and possible extraction of teeth.”
Poor dental hygiene may also increase your risk of other conditions, including stroke, cardiovascular disease, premature birth in pregnant women, and endocarditis — a potentially dangerous infection affecting the heart. It could also put you at risk for COVID-19 complications.
A study by McGill University researchers found that those with poor oral hygiene habits may experience more severe COVID-19 symptoms, as well as complications. According to the report, patients with gum disease — a condition that, if left untreated, could lead to bone loss — were 3.5 times more likely to require intensive care, 4.5 times more likely to need a ventilator and 8.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19.
Hapak underscores that there is a strong connection between oral health and overall wellbeing and says that regular upkeep can reveal problems before they start, especially more complicated scenarios that, if left unmanaged, may become more painful and expensive to treat. She adds that dentists also perform “an oral cancer check and keep an eye on possible issues brought on from prescription medications or lifestyle habits like smoking, vaping, marijuana and alcohol use.”
Certainly, a visit at a dentist’s office may look different in a pandemic. What you can expect are enhanced protocols and rigorous prevention and control procedures that are designed to keep you and others safe. Also, given the nature of their work, dentists and hygienists understand the ins and outs of infection control.
“It’s important to clarify that there are no known cases of COVID-19 infection from dental treatment in Canada,” says Hapak. “Even though dentists have always followed strict sterilization procedures known as infection, prevention and control protocols, even more safety standards are in place during the pandemic to keep patients, dental staff and dentists protected.”
Some of those measures include pre-screening questions, hand sanitization upon entering the clinic, limited number of patients in waiting rooms, patients wearing masks, and plexiglass barriers at reception desks, she says, in addition to ime delays between patients to prevent crowding in the clinic and dentists and staff wearing masks, gowns, face shields and other personal protective equipment (PPE) during treatments.
Whether you choose to book your appointment now or later, a few key habits can help keep your mouth healthy. Floss daily and brush your teeth at least twice a day for two or three minutes at a time, stick to a healthy diet, and try to swish your mouth with water after consuming sugary snacks or drinks. Reducing alcohol and smoking, especially marijuana smoke which can cause oral cancer, dry mouth and staining, can also help you avoid cavities and other dental issues.
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