Original Article

Dentistry is oral health, and oral health is human health. Proper dental care is a key component of your overall health and well-being. Periodontal (gum) disease has known associations with cardiovascular diseasediabetes, and poor outcomes for infants from mothers with oral health issues.123 That is why it’s so important to care for your oral health.

In addition to being a clinician orthodontist, I am also an associate professor of orthodontics and have been in academia for over 10 years. I really value my role in training the future generation of dental professionals and orthodontists.

We understand that it’s easy to neglect your dental health. You can close your mouth and ignore what is happening inside of it, and pretend that everything is well. Patients oftentimes are not as aware as they should be about the significance of dental care. That is why we place such an emphasis on preventive care.

Prevention is always better than a cure.

— EDMUND KHOO, DDS

Prevention is always better than a cure. It is essential to prioritize dental wellness and maintenance in order to prevent future damage and health concerns. As with any medical condition, prevention is the best case scenario, and if that fails, we should try to reverse any initial harm that has occurred. However, if we allow disease and infection to progress far enough, the damage may become irreversible.

If you sprain your ankle, for example, you experience pain and go to the doctor to seek treatment. For the most part, the injury is reversible. You can return to your normal function if you follow treatment guidance.

But when it comes to oral health, by the time you feel pain, oftentimes the damage is irreversible. That’s the big difference. There is no way that tooth enamel can ever be substantially regained if a cavity has already progressed sufficiently. If your pain leads to a root canal, there is no feasible way that the pulp chamber can ever be fully regenerated. So in dentistry, pain is a poor first indicator that you should see a dentist because, by the time you feel pain, that could mean irreparable damage has already been done.

This is why, as with all medical disciplines, preventive care is so critical in oral health care.

This, however, became challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people opted out of going to their regular dental screenings. In some states, they even suspended elective dental treatment for a brief period of time.

There are a number of ways these pandemic-related delays may have impacted people’s overall oral health.

— EDMUND KHOO, DDS

There are a number of ways these pandemic-related delays may have impacted people’s overall oral health.

The first scenario is your classic example: someone who has skipped their regular dental checkup and cleaning. These visits may also include X-rays that help dental professionals identify potential risks, such as decay. If you skip these screenings, something that could have been completely preventable, like a small decay that could have been easily treated with a small filling or sealant, now requires a large filling or maybe even a root canal and a crown.

Another scenario might be a person who requires a dental implant because they have a space in their mouth due to tooth loss. If that person puts off their appointment for a year, the teeth on either side of the space might drift into that space, resulting in inadequate room for the implant. You may need supplemental orthodontic treatment to regain the space again.

Even more concerning is the potential for bone loss. If the implant is not placed soon enough, the bone will dissolve over time. In as little as six months, you can lose up to half of the original bone.4 So now, in addition to orthodontic treatment, you may also need bone grafting. If the tooth space is near the sinus, the bone might become so thin that you may even need a sinus lift to create more space.

The most extreme scenario is missing oral cancer. During checkups, dental professionals always perform cancer screenings to look for possible signs of oral cancer. If a patient notices a small, white lump (possibly with a cauliflower-like appearance) underneath their tongue, they may brush it off as something else.

They may think they bit or burnt their tongue while eating. But then it persists and not only doesn’t go away but grows larger over time. When they finally go in for a checkup, their dentist will notice the lump and order a biopsy to determine if it is cancer.

When oral cancer is caught early, there are effective treatment options, like surgical resection and other cancer treatments. But if it is left to run its course, it may spread to the rest of the body. If that occurs, the prognosis becomes a lot poorer.

We are not trying to cause fear or scare anyone . . . but it’s important for people to know what can happen if they neglect their oral health. It’s just as important as taking care of the rest of your body.

— EDMUND KHOO, DDS

These are all very real examples of what could happen if you put off getting the necessary dental treatment. We are not trying to cause fear or scare anyone with these scenarios, but it’s important for people to know what can happen if they neglect their oral health. It’s just as important as taking care of the rest of your body.

Unfortunately, a lot of people have dental fear or anxiety. They may also fear the possibility of COVID transmission by attending visits in person. But the rate of transmission in dental practice has been very low, and dentists are extremely careful in taking all the necessary precautions to protect patients against COVID-19.5 We have been masking and wearing gloves long before the pandemic. 

We understand that fear of visiting your dentist during the COVID-19 pandemic exists, but to a large degree, the dental environment has been proven to be safe.6 Remember that if you delay, ignore, or refuse preventive oral care, then it can be much more costly down the road, both from a financial and biological perspective. Our main priority is that our patients are safe and healthy.

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