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Safely Resuming Dental Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 42 percent of Americans reported not seeing a dentist as often as they would like. Throughout 2020, many dental offices were closed or only offered emergency care, resulting in much lower patient volume. About 75 percent of U.S. adults reported delaying dental care due to the pandemic.

Resuming dental care for a checkup – which is recommended every six months – may rank low on your to-do list, especially when considering barriers like lack of coverage, financial constraints, lack of child care or work leave and the fact that more than 60 percent of people suffer from dental fear.

Many LIUNA health and welfare funds offer dental coverage, lessening the financial burden on members and their families to care for their oral health. Some health and welfare funds offer dental coverage under the medical benefit and others are covered under stand-alone dental plans. Refer to your Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) or Summary Plan Description (SPD) for details about your dental coverage.

However, these regular checkups are an important part of maintaining our overall health. So how can you resume dental visits safely while the COVID-19 pandemic continues?

Safety and Health Precautions

Dental offices face unique challenges in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 due to exposure to the patient’s mouth and because common dental procedures generate droplets and aerosols. Some practices have implemented teledentistry and triage protocols to determine if an in-office visit is necessary or can be pushed back, particularly in areas with high COVID-19 community transmission.

Safety and health protocols and precautions for dental settings include asking patients to wear a face covering, limiting the number of visitors who accompany them, answering a screening questionnaire and getting a temperature check on arrival. Some dental providers are also spacing out appointments, removing high-touch items such as magazines from the waiting area, placing waiting room chairs six feet apart or requesting patients wait outside until their appointment time.

Dental providers should also strictly follow existing safety and health protocols to protect themselves and their patients, such as wearing PPE, adhering to hand hygiene practices and following cleaning and disinfecting procedures, including sterilization of tools.

Making an Appointment

Even with these precautions, you may not feel comfortable going to a dentist. Non-urgent treatments are often elective procedures that don’t affect your health at the current moment and can be put off until later. Examples include routine checkups, teeth whitening, X-rays and fixing cosmetic problems. Conditions causing severe pain or carrying a high risk of infection require emergency treatment and should be performed right away. Examples of emergency treatment include broken teeth, bleeding and post-surgery care.

Not sure if your situation is non-urgent or an emergency? Ask yourself the following questions and then call your dentist to discuss with them.

  1. Are you in pain? Pain or swelling in your mouth, face or neck can mean a number of things.
  2. Are your gums affected? If your gums are puffy, they bleed when you brush or floss or you have a personal or family history of gum disease, it’s time to make an appointment.
  3. Are you having trouble eating? Difficulty chewing or swallowing is not the norm. Try eating soft or liquified foods until you can see your dentist.

Dental Hygiene Behaviors

Whether you consistently make your six-month checkup or are delaying non-urgent care due to the pandemic, you should still follow daily dental hygiene practices for optimal oral health. Poor oral health can lead to cavities, gum disease and has also been linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

  • Brush for two minutes twice a day to reduce plaque and prevent cavities. Use a gentle back and forth scrubbing motion, make contact with gums and teeth, cover all surfaces and don’t forget to brush the tongue.
  • Floss daily to remove plaque and food particles that a toothbrush can’t reach. Gently floss between teeth using a zig-zag motion; slide floss up and down against the surface of the tooth and under the gum line.
  • Rinse with mouthwash daily to prevent gum disease. Swish about four teaspoons of mouthwash (about the amount that fits in the cap of the container) around your mouth for 30 seconds, gargle the mouthwash and spit it out.
  • Chew sugar-free gum after meals and snacks to protect teeth and clean out food particles.

[Emily Smith is the LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Manager.]

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