Can’t visit the dentist? Here’s how to take better care of your teeth
Should you worry if you can’t get a routine dental appointment because of the pandemic? Can you be your own hygienist? And what if you have an emergency? Experts answer your questions
For many of us, the routine trip to the dentist is just one of the ways in which our lives have been disrupted in 2020. The British Dental Association (BDA) estimates that, since the March lockdown, dentists in England have provided nearly 19m fewer treatments than in the same period last year.
Although some routine dental treatments are now available again, in the UK, surgeries’ operating capacity has been reduced and some are triaging patients according to their level of need and risk.
If you would like to see your dentist, it is advisable to contact them by phone or email to see if it is necessary for you to visit. For up-to-date advice on accessing dental care in the UK, see the NHS website.
Although they are assumed to be at high risk of contracting Covid-19, a recent study of nearly 2,200 US dentists found that fewer than 1% tested positive in June. Professor Damien Walmsley, scientific adviser to the BDA, says dentists’ routine attention to infection control puts them at an advantage. “It’s almost second nature to us.”
A heightened potential risk of coronavirus transmission is in the use of instruments such as dental drills or ultrasonic scalers, which create a fine mist.
The profession is still adapting its procedures as more becomes known about how the virus spreads. For example, some dentists have switched to handheld tools that are slower, but create less spray. “Everything’s a bit of a compromise,” says Walmsley.
Access to services is improving. In England, the “fallow time” during which a treatment room must remain empty after any aerosol-generating procedure was recently reduced from an hour to 15-20 minutes (depending on ventilation), enabling dentists to see more patients.
“The majority of dental problems are preventable,” says Walmsley. Brushing your teeth in the morning and at night, for two minutes each time, will generally be enough to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. Studies have shown, however, that people brush for an average of 43 seconds. “Four minutes a day is not a lot to ask,” says Dr Nigel Carter, the chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation.
Any toothpaste with fluoride will do. Not only does it help to prevent tooth decay, but it slows down the rate of progression of any existing decay. Carter is concerned by the increasing availability of “natural” toothpastes without fluoride. Water fluoridation is not widespread in the UK, “so we really do need that protection”, he says.
What you brush with is less important than brushing. Walmsley says a manual toothbrush is just as effective as a powered one if you brush for two minutes, twice a day. Some electric toothbrushes, however, have a timer – or even an app – to help you to be more thorough. “I can say from personal experience that it’s moved me from 1.5 minutes to 2 minutes,” says Carter of his electric toothbrush.
Dentists recommend replacing your toothbrush or brush head every three months. Very few people do. “As a nation, we use 1.2, 1.3 heads a year,” says Carter. “There are a lot of very old, scraggy toothbrushes out there.”
Martin Addy, emeritus professor of dentistry at the University of Bristol, has argued that more frequent brushing should be promoted alongside hand-washing to protect against coronavirus, as the antimicrobial agents in toothpaste and mouthwash reduce mouth bacteria.