What’s Going to Happen to My Teeth if I Don’t See a Dentist During COVID?

Hopefully nothing — so long as you floss.

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The World Health Organization has made it official: You can skip your dental checkups for the next few months. While dentists in most areas have been given the green light to be open for weeks now, the WHO is recommending that dentists in any area where community spread is still occurring dial back their services to prioritize essential and emergency dental work only. (Dentists and dental hygienists are among the professions at the highest risk for contracting viruses as part of the job.)

Preventive and routine care, like your biannual cleaning, obviously don’t fit such a criteria. So what’s gonna happen to your mouth if 2020 passes without having a dental hygienist stab you in the gums with a miniature sickle?

As per usual, your continued oral health is going to depend greatly on your own habits. Beyond checking for cavities and other abnormalities, the biggest takeaway from routine cleanings tends to relate to how you care for your teeth on your own. For example, your dentist might tell you that you need to floss more regularly, or that you’re brushing too hard. Which means, of course, it’s never been more important to take good care of your mouth. Brush twice a day for two minutes using a soft-bristle toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste, and floss at night. In a pandemic, water flossers and those little plastic tools count, too, if they’re easier.

If you don’t keep up with your basic dental hygiene, you might start to notice some side effects — namely, an accumulation of plaque and tartar. In addition to looking gross and potentially discoloring your teeth, plaque and tartar can cause cavities and gingivitis. A major function of your professional cleaning is to remove this plaque — because if it gets bad enough, you can’t do it yourself.

So that’s one thing you’re definitely missing out on. Now, cavities and gingivitis won’t kill you, but they can lead to more serious issues down the road, like tooth loss, or become extremely painful. The good news? Though six-month cleanings are often recommended, some dentists say that adults with good oral hygiene can go as much as two years between cleanings.

However, if you begin to experience tooth pain or bleeding gums, you may want to give your dentist a call. As part of its overall suggestion to avoid preventive dental care, the WHO is also recommending that dental offices offer remote care and consultations. Clearly a cavity can’t be filled remotely, but it’s possible that a dentist could diagnose issues and prescribe treatments without seeing you in person — or could assess whether your problem is beginning to qualify as essential care.

Bottom line, you’ve gotta keep up your teeth-brushing and flossing, even if no one else is around to complain about your bad breath. But there’s plenty of other stuff — like you know, a pandemic that seemingly has no end in sight — to worry about than missing your teeth cleanings this year.