For all the anxiety it can provoke in some people, going to the dentist is a pretty passive experience. Your responsibility involves getting to the appointment and easing your way into the chair. Right?
Not quite. If you’re going in for a routine dental cleaning—and you should, anywhere from one to four times a year depending on your dentist’s recommendation—there are some steps you can take to make sure you get the most out of it.
To find out how, we consulted with Mark Burhenne, DDS, a family dentist in Sunnyvale, California. Here are some best practices to consider before you get to the office.
Don’t brush beforehand
Like the hotel guest who wants to tidy up before the maid comes in, dental patients often like to brush and floss before going in for a cleaning. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it might actually be better to leave a little food stuck in your teeth. “I want to know where the problem areas are,” Burhenne says. “Where does the tuna from the sandwich get caught? Those can be areas where decay sets in.” Patients can brush if they want, he says, but “I routinely tell them not to. Go out and have lunch instead, then come see us. If you floss, we can’t see where the food impaction is.”
“People see a white coat and they go blank,” Burhenne says. Rather than assume you’re going to remember everything you wanted to ask your dentist, jot it down on a piece of paper or type a few keywords into your phone to help jog your memory. “Say you have a cold sensitivity on the lower right after using toothpaste. Write it down. That way, you won’t be trying to remember everything you wanted to ask in the six months since your last appointment.”
Don’t whiten your teeth beforehand
“A lot of people whiten before they come in to see us to show what a good job they’re doing of taking care of their teeth,” Burhenne says. “That’s a mistake.” Whitening processes, whether over-the-counter or applied in dental offices, can make teeth sensitive, and that’s not what you want right before a cleaning. Instead, plan on asking the dentist if you can have them brightened immediately following your cleaning. That, Burhenne says, is the best time, since the teeth have been scraped clean of debris and tartar and will be more receptive to the whitening agents. “The gel penetrates the tooth a lot quicker.”
Bring your dental appliance (it’s a patient, too)
Many dental offices now offer treatment for sleep apnea that involves an appliance worn at night intended to open up your airway; other patients wear retainers following orthodontic work or guards to prevent grinding and clenching. Whatever the reason, if you have an oral appliance, make sure you bring it in so it can get a good scrub, too. “Tartar forms on the device just like it forms on teeth,” Burhenne says. A dentist might put it in an ultrasonic cleaning machine so it’s ready by the time you leave.
Don’t come in if you’re sick
According to Burhenne, a proper cleaning involves scraping below the gum line to remove tartar. That can irritate the gums and cause bacteremia, where small amounts of bacteria get into the bloodstream from the mouth. That’s normal, but if you’re immunocompromised or otherwise unwell, your best bet is to postpone until you’re feeling better. “Bacteremia is transient and isn’t usually an issue in healthy people,” Burhenne says. “But if you’re feeling run down, it’s best not to come in for a cleaning.”
Sometimes, dentists will suggest pre-medicating with an antibiotic to lessen the risk of a more serious infection. If you have heart conditions or any other chronic issue, make sure you disclose it to your provider.