A dental exam is part of a checkup of your teeth and gums. When you see your dentist for a checkup, the visit usually includes three parts:
- A dental cleaning to remove the buildup of plaque, a sticky film of bacteria that coats your teeth
- X-rays of your teeth on certain visits, depending on the health of your teeth
- An exam of your teeth and mouth by a dentist
Dental exams are important for protecting your oral health. Oral health includes your teeth, gums, and all the muscles and bones that let you smile, speak, and chew. Common oral health problems, such as include tooth decay (cavities) and gum disease (periodontal disease), can lead to pain, infection, and tooth loss.
Poor oral health can affect your general health, too. For example, loosing teeth can cause problems with eating and nutrition, which can lead to other health problems. You can help prevent oral health problems with regular visits to the dentist and good toothbrushing and flossing habits at home.
At a dental checkup, you’ll usually see both a dentist and a dental hygienist. A dentist is a doctor who has special training to care for teeth and gums. A dental hygienist is a health care professional trained to clean teeth and teach you how to take good care of your teeth and gums.
Dentists can treat people of all ages. There are also pediatric dentists who have received additional training on dental care for children.
Other names: dental checkup, oral exam, oral hygiene, dental hygiene, dental prophylaxis
What is it used for?
Dental exams are used to:
- Clean teeth to help prevent tooth decay, gum disease, and other oral health problems
- Find problems early when they’re easier to treat
- Help people learn the best ways to care for their oral health
Why do I need a dental exam?
Ask your dentist or hygienist how often you should have exams. Most adults and children need to have a routine dental exam every six months. You may need more frequent dental exams if you:
- Have gum disease
- Get a lot of cavities
- Have a family history of oral health problems
- Have a health condition that may increase your risk for oral health problems, such as:
- Heart disease
- Conditions that affect your immune system
If you have swollen, dark red, and/or bleeding gums, tooth pain, or other discomfort in your mouth, don’t wait for your routine dental exam. Contact your dentist as soon as possible.
Babies should have their first dental appointment within six months of getting their first tooth, or by their first birthday. Ask your baby’s dentist how often your baby should have a dental exam. Most babies should be checked every six months.
What happens during a dental exam?
At a typical dental exam, a hygienist will clean your teeth. Then the dentist will examine your mouth. At certain visits, you may have x-rays of your teeth before the dentist examines you.
Dental x-rays can show hidden cavities, gum disease, bone loss in your jaw, and other problems that can’t be seen by looking in your mouth. Ask your dentist how often you need x-rays.
For a dental cleaning:
- The first step is called “scaling.” The hygienist will use small, metal tools to scrape plaque and tartar from your teeth:
- Plaque is a film of bacteria that begins to coat your teeth soon after you eat. Brushing and flossing removes plaque, but not all of it. If you let plaque build up on your teeth, it can cause cavities and destroy the tissue and bone around your teeth, leading to tooth loss. Scaling gets rid of the plaque that tooth brushing leaves behind.
- Tartar is a hard substance that can form over time from plaque that’s not removed from your teeth. Tartar can build up along your gumline and cause red, swollen gums (gingivitis). This can lead to more serious gum infections and tooth loss. Only a professional dental scaling can remove tartar. And regular professional dental cleanings can prevent it from forming.
- Fluoride is a mineral that prevents tooth decay (cavities). Fluoride treatments are given to children more often than adults.
- Sealants are thin coatings painted on the chewing surfaces of the back teeth. They can help prevent cavities for many years by keeping food and bacteria out of the grooves in the teeth. Sealants are mostly used in children and teens. But adults who have never had cavities in their back teeth may also choose to protect those teeth with dental sealants.
If dental x-rays are needed:
- Your upper body will be covered with a heavy lead apron to protect you from radiation.
- You’ll bite down on a piece of plastic and an x-ray scanner will be positioned near your cheek.
- The hygienist will leave the room or stand behind a protective shield to take the x-ray, which only takes a few seconds.
- You’ll repeat these steps a few times to get x-rays of all your teeth.
For the dentist’s exam:
- If you had x-rays, your dentist will check them for problems.
- Next, your dentist will:
- Examine your teeth and gums.
- Check your bite, which is the way your top and bottom teeth fit together. If you have a bite problem, you may be referred to an orthodontist.
- Check you for oral cancer. This involves looking and feeling for unusual lumps in your mouth, including on your lips and tongue. Your dentist may also check your face and neck.
Will I need to do anything to prepare for a dental exam?
If you have certain health conditions, you may need to take antibiotics before your exam to prevent infections. Ask your dentist and/or your health care provider whether you need antibiotics, especially if you have heart problems or an immune system disorder.
Some people feel anxious about going to the dentist. If you or your child feels this way, tell your dentist before your visit. Your dentist can discuss ways to help you feel more relaxed about getting dental care.
Are there any risks to a dental exam?
There is very little risk to having a dental exam. The cleaning may be uncomfortable, but it’s usually not painful.
Dental x-rays are safe for most people. The dose of radiation in an x-ray is very low. But x-rays are not recommended during pregnancy, unless it’s an emergency. Be sure to tell your dentist if you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant.
What do the results mean?
After your dental exam, your dentist will discuss any oral health problems you may have and your treatment options. For certain problems, improving your brushing and flossing habits may be all that’s needed.
If you or your child has a cavity or a more serious problem, you’ll probably need to make another appointment with the dentist to treat it.
Is there anything else I need to know about a dental exam?
You can help keep your teeth for your lifetime by getting regular dental exams and taking good care of your teeth and gums. For a healthy mouth and strong teeth:
- Brush your teeth twice a day using a soft-bristled brush and toothpaste with fluoride.
- Clean between your teeth regularly using dental floss, a special brush, or a plastic pick. Your dentist can suggest the best way to do this.
- Replace your toothbrush every three or four months.
- Eat a healthy diet and limit sweets and sugary drinks. If you do have sweets, brush your teeth soon afterwards.
- Drink fluoridated water.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking increases your risk for gum disease.