A visit to the dentist doesn’t have to be something to dread. Dentists and hygienists want to help, and they’ll usually try to make your office visit as easy as possible.
You can often watch movies or TV. They may break up work into many visits so it’s not too much in one sitting. And there are options for pain relief or sedation during procedures.
Making it to the chair puts you closer to better health and smiling with more confidence.
Before the Appointment
Plan enough time off from work or school to feel less rushed or anxious about getting back. When you make your appointment, ask how long a cleaning and exam usually take, then add extra time to that. You’ll be in the dentist’s chair longer if it’s been a while since your last visit. An end-of-day appointment is a good option so you can go right home.
If you have dental insurance, see if your dentist is in-network prior to making yur appointment to save money. You may have to pay a co-pay when you’re at the office, or your dentist might bill you the balance after your insurance pays them. If you don’t have insurance, find out ahead of time how much you should plan to pay at your appointment.
On the day, get there early so you can fill out paperwork (or turn it in if forms are available online ahead of time) and give the staff time to set you up. Have your driver’s license and insurance card ready when you check in at the reception desk.
A Routine Visit
A dental hygienist covers your chest with a plastic or paper cloth, and you may get eye shields to wear, too. You’ll see a tray of metal and perhaps ultrasonic tools. The hygienist uses these, working a tooth at a time, to scrape off any hard buildup of plaque and tartar on the surfaces and along your gumline. They may floss between your teeth, too.
If your jaw hurts or you have mouth pain while they’re cleaning, let the hygienist know. You can have rest breaks when you need them.
After that’s done, you’ll rinse well. Using a tool with a spinning head, the hygienist polishes your teeth. You might even get to choose the flavor of buffing paste. And you’ll rinse again.
Typically, you’ll get X-rays every year or so to help find problems that are just starting or are hard to see.
Then the hygienist brings the dentist in to do a thorough exam, checking each tooth and looking for pockets or gaps between your teeth and gums.
A tool called a periodontal probe, which could be metal or ultrasonic, helps the dentist find problem spots. It can also measure the depth of any gum pockets. The hygienist often stays to record notes in your chart.
Afterward, the dentist will talk to you about how things are looking and what’s next.
A First or Non-Routine Visit
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the dentist, you can expect the same care as a routine visit, as well as some extras.
New patient appointments and visits after more than a couple of years have passed usually require X-rays. The dentist wants a complete look at what’s going on inside your teeth, gums, and supporting bone structures.
Plan to hang in there for a deep cleaning session with the hygienist. The longer you wait between visits, the more hard tartar builds up on teeth and around the gumline. (If your teeth are sensitive, talk to the hygienist or dentist about numbing options to lessen pain before the work starts.) Having tartar removed can be uncomfortable, but the clean, smooth feel of your teeth after is well worth it. You’ll have fresher breath, too.
When the dentist probes your teeth and checks the gums for pockets, it may hurt and bleed a bit. The pain shouldn’t last long.
Don’t be overwhelmed if the dentist finds problems. By getting this appointment done, you’re already on the way to fixing them with your dentist’s help. And if you have good dental habits after this, routine follow-up visits will be easier.
After the Visit
If your mouth is sore, you can take over-the-counter pain relievers.
Call the office between routine visits if you have questions, your teeth hurt, or your jaw swells. Issues like broken teeth are an emergency, and you should let your dentist know right away.
When your mouth is healthy, you should probably get a cleaning and exam every 6 months. Depending on what the dentist finds during your exam, they’ll recommend a treatment plan, dealing with the most needed care first.
To take care of problems, you’ll likely need to come back sooner than you would for another routine visit.
You may need fillings to close up cavities in the teeth before they get larger. For more serious decay, crowns surround and cover the core of the damaged tooth, keeping the root in place. This “cap” is cemented in place to look and feel like the real thing.
To start healing gum problems, scaling and root planing clean the sides of the teeth below the gumline so the gums can tighten up around the roots better. You may need X-rays every 6 months to check your progress.
If the dentist finds infection or swelling in the roots of a tooth, you might need a root canal. This treatment involves opening the tooth and cleaning the inside before closing it back up. You may need to see a specialist called an endodontist.
Your dentist might recommend replacing any missing or very damaged teeth with implants or bridges. Implants are screws made of titanium metal that go into your jawbone and act as anchors for crowns. Unlike removable dentures, these long-term replacements stay put. They look and work like your natural teeth. Bridges fill, or “bridge,” the gap between missing teeth when anchored to healthy teeth on each side or to implants.
Whatever plan of care your dentist recommends, you will also need a plan for paying for the work. For more complex procedures, you may be able to set up a payment plan to cover your part of the cost.
Tips for Flossing Your Teeth
Floss your teeth once a day. Flossing gets rid of food and plaque between the teeth, where your toothbrush cannot reach. If plaque stays between teeth, it can harden into tartar, which must be removed by a dentist or hygienist. To floss:
- Remove about an 18-inch strip of floss from the dispenser.
- Wind the floss around the middle fingers of each hand, leaving a 1-inch section open for flossing. Floss the top teeth first, then the bottom.
- Place the floss in your mouth and use your index fingers to push the floss between the teeth. Be careful not to push too hard and injure the gums.
- Move the floss up and down against the tooth and up and around the gum line. The floss should form a C-shape around the tooth as you floss.
- Floss between each tooth as well as behind the back teeth.
- Use a clean section of floss as needed and take up used floss by winding it around the fingers.
Also, antibacterial mouth rinses (there are fluoride mouth rinses as well) can reduce bacteria that cause plaque and gum disease, according to the American Dental Association.
Tips for Rinsing Your Teeth & Gums
The third part of your daily oral care routine should be mouthwash — but not just any mouthwash.
- Rinse daily with an antiseptic (also known as antibacterial) mouthwash to help kill bacteria that cause plaque, early gum disease, and bad breath.
- Fluoride-containing mouthwash helps prevent tooth decay. Some mouthwashes have both antibacterial ingredients and fluoride.
- Swish the rinse around in your mouth for 30 to 60 seconds.
- You can use a mouthwash before or after you brush and floss.
Eating Right and Dental Health
For good dental health, eat a variety of foods, avoiding those that contain sugars and starches. These foods produce the most acids in the mouth, and the longer they stay in the mouth, the more they can damage the teeth. Hard “sucking candies” are especially harmful because they stay in the mouth a long time.
Snacking on sugary foods can lead to tooth decay, because most people don’t brush after snacks. Starchy snack foods, like potato chips, stick to the teeth. Avoid snacking on:
- Candies, cookies, cakes, and pie
- Sugary gum
- Crackers, breadsticks, and chips
- Dried fruits and raisins
Visit your dentist at least once every six months. To maintain healthy teeth and gums, it’s important to have regular check-ups and professional cleanings. You should also see your dentist if you have pain in your teeth or mouth or bleeding, swollen gums.
You can also ask your dentist about dental sealants. Sealant is a material used to coat the top, chewing surfaces of the back teeth. This coating protects the tooth from decay and usually lasts a long time.
Written by WebMD Editorial Contributors
Medically Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on October 27, 2020