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Going to the Dentist Gets Complicated in a Pandemic

Say goodbye to magazines and waiting rooms, hello to face shields and temperature checks

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Dental offices across the country are beginning to open their doors for routine appointments after postponing nonurgent care and cleanings for several months due to the coronavirus. But things are going to look a little different for returning patients.

The most obvious change from a patient perspective? “It may not have that homey feel,” says Mary-Jane Hanlon, associate dean for clinical affairs at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and president-elect of the Massachusetts Dental Society.

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Waiting rooms in many practices, for example, will be stripped of magazines and coffee stations. Face masks will replace friendly smiles, and bottles of hand sanitizer will stand in for complimentary bottles of water. Some offices will be without waiting rooms completely. Patients may be asked to wait in their cars until “the exact moment” they can be seen, says Mark S. Wolff, dean of the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. This is a standard many doctors’ offices are also implementing as they reopen for preventive care.

"It's not because dentists don't want to see their happy faces — we all want to see happy faces,” Wolff says. “It's because we recognize having you come in and sitting in a waiting room with lots of people, it's not safe.”

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In an effort to keep common areas and work stations sterile throughout the day, your dentist office may have a different smell, too. “I made the joke that it's going to smell more like a swimming pool,” Wolff says. Another change: Coronavirus screenings will become an important part of the check-in process. Expect a series of questions about you may have been experiencing, as well as a temperature check before your appointment.

Questions to ask your dentist before you go:

  • Is your appointment one that can be delayed? Or do you need to be seen soon?
  • Are appointments being spaced out to cut down on the number of people in the office at one time?
  • What are the social distancing policies for the common areas of the office?
  • Does staff have all necessary personal protective equipment?
  • Are patients required to wear face masks in the office before and after their treatment?

What to expect when you're in the exam chair

When patients are brought back for their treatment, tools and surfaces commonly touched by the dentist may be covered in plastic. These sheets will be changed and discarded after each patient to make the disinfection process easier, Wolff says.

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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.

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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.

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