There will be some differences in the tools used, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that dentists avoid procedures that generate spray and splashes from a patient's mouth, since the coronavirus travels by way of small respiratory droplets that can linger in the air for hours. So routine cleaning, polishing and other elective procedures that require plaque to be scraped from the tooth's surface with a mechanical instrument, for example, may be unavailable or modified by using hand tools, depending on the number of coronavirus cases in the community and guidance from state and local officials.
Dentists and dental staff, who are normally clad in personal protective equipment, will be even more so now. Expect to see goggles, face shields, N95 respirator masks, gowns, hairnets, booties and gloves on at all times.
And when your treatment is done, you won't be encouraged to idle by the front desk and make your next appointment. Instead, to limit the amount of time you spend in the office around others, you might get a call a few days later to schedule any follow-up care or settle any billing questions. The office may also check in about any new symptoms you may have developed to ensure staff members and other patients are safe, Wolff says.
So, is it safe to go to the dentist?
The biggest risk when it comes to contracting the coronavirus isn't in the office itself, especially with all of the new precautionary measures in place. To date, no COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in dental settings or among dental health care personnel, according to the CDC. “The greatest risk is getting to our dental practice,” says Wolff — especially for patients who rely on public transportation.
"It's important that you recognize that you need to protect yourself as you're coming to see us,” Wolff adds. Wear a mask on your way in, and stay at least 6 feet away from others as best you can. “If you are using public transportation, you should carry hand sanitizer with you. And any time you touch surfaces, never touch your face or eyes,” he says.
It's also important to consider the urgency of your visit. If you just had your teeth cleaned before the pandemic, for example, you may be able to go a few more months before you need to be seen again. That said, many older adults require frequent cleanings, so if you are unsure whether you should schedule something soon, talk to you dentist, says Chad P. Gehani, president of the American Dental Association. “It's a form of prevention. Good general health begins with good oral health,” he says.
If you've been battling a toothache or dealing with a cavity for the last several months, you should schedule an appointment sooner rather than later, because “if you wait on a cavity it becomes a root canal or an extraction,” Wolff says. Swelling, which can signal an infection, is another reason to be seen immediately, Hanlon says.
And keep in mind, many dentists are still using telehealth to interact with patients. With a phone call or video chat, the dentist “may be able to allay your fears,” Hanlon says. “A great way to minimize your exposure is to try and do telehealth first and then proceed to going to the office,” she adds. Distance is “one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to this virus,” according to the CDC.