What to Expect at the Dentist During COVID-19

Dental hygienist conducting exam

The world is still a very different place than it was at the beginning of 2020. Despite having to adapt to our new normal, many health services, like dental care, are available to us again. A few months ago we answered some important dental health questions in our article Keeping Your Teeth Healthy During COVID-19. As we all adjust to living long-term with COVID-19, we'd like to revisit this topic to help support your overall health.

Dental offices are back open! Is it business as usual?

Yes, as of the end of May, the governors of Vermont and New York declared that dental offices could reopen. There are very stringent guidelines in place for dental offices, all with an effort to help keep the staff, patients, and greater community safe. Here at UVM Medical Center Dental and Oral Health we opened up slowly so we could closely monitor the viral case loads and trends within the state. We have altered our schedule to allow for added cleaning and disinfecting procedures. Some of our appointments have been altered to reduce producing any unnecessary aerosols, or airborne risks.

What should I expect for my first appointment back?

Some processes are a little different. First, we ask that people call our office when they've arrived in the parking lot. This allows our staff to ask some COVID-19 screening questions prior to being permitted in the building. Plus, this helps to reduce cross traffic from individuals checking in and out at the same time.

Upon entering our office, everyone's temperatures are taken and recorded. Also, our patients are asked to wear masks when entering the building and to keep them on until they are safely seated in their treatment room and our staff asks them to remove it. The dental healthcare professionals are wearing all of the recommended personal protective equipment to keep them and the patients safe. Once the procedure is finished, the patient puts their mask back on. Then, insurance info, payments and future appointment scheduling are now completed in the treatment room, so our patients can head straight to the exit when they are finished.

How is dental health connected to overall health/immunity?

The mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body and has a huge connection to our overall health. Our body functions through many intricate systems of checks and balances. If our immune system is suppressed due to a sickness or health condition, then it's not working at full capacity in other areas. Since our mouth is connected to our body, the goal is to keep the bacterial load within normal to help maintain a healthy balance. Just as washing our hands keeps bacteria at bay, so does brushing and flossing.

Why is oral bacteria a concern for the rest of our body?

There is evidence of a specific link between oral health and heart disease. Recent studies show that if you have gum disease in a moderate or advanced stage, you're at greater risk for heart disease than someone with healthy gums. More than 80 percent of Americans, for example, are living with periodontal or gum disease, which often goes undiagnosed. This may be because the patient's teeth feel fine, so they avoid going to the dentist, and visits to the physician rarely focus on oral health.

How are oral and heart health related?

Oral health and heart disease are connected by the spread of bacteria - and other germs - from your mouth to other parts of your body through the blood stream. When these bacteria reach the heart, they can attach themselves to any damaged area and cause inflammation. This can result in illnesses such as endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart. According to the American Heart Association, other cardiovascular conditions such as atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and stroke have also been linked to inflammation caused by oral bacteria.

Our body's inflammatory response to oral bacteria also plays a hand in other systemic health conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and there is even said to be a link with preterm labor and low birth weights. So especially now, when our health is of utmost importance, we want to take care not to ignore our dental health.

Chelsea Wells is a registered dental hygienist for The University of Vermont Medical Center's Dental and Oral Health office.

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