The phrase “preventative dentistry” doesn’t exactly spark joy. But when you call it something cool and new-agey like preventistry and learn why it’s so important (beyond someone simply telling you that it is important), you’ll naturally jump out of bed on the day of your 6 monthly cleaning. The truth is many people go to the dentist only when they feel pain, because it’s understandably hard to prioritize health when it feels like there’s nothing wrong. Although the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” doesn’t apply to dentistry, many people still live by that rule — and that’s why tooth decay “remains the most prevalent chronic disease… even though it is largely preventable,” according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial research. But, what will actually happen to your mouth (and wallet) if you skip a cleaning? Here are facts to chew on:
What might happen if you skip preventative care: Cavities
Cavities (aka dental caries) are the most common threat to our oral health. Tooth decay can start small — think tiny pin hole — beginning in the enamel, the hard outer layer of the tooth. At the early stages, you might not feel any pain or even know the cavity is there, as it can take months to form. If you go to the dentist regularly, the cavity will be caught and filled. Left untreated, though, cavities can penetrate the inner layers of the tooth and eventually reach the nerve. This can be incredibly painful and will require more invasive treatment, such as a root canal, and in rare cases, a tooth extraction to fix.
What might happen if you skip preventative care: Periodontal Disease
Your teeth are just one part of your mouth, and each tooth is surrounded by your gums, which are equally important to keep healthy. Too often gums are neglected with lazy brushing and flossing. Gum disease starts when bacteria accumulate on the gum line, causing redness and inflammation. Visiting your hygienist regularly is key to removing bacteria, including calculus (bacteria that hardens to the teeth that can’t be removed at home), lurking in hard-to-reach places, or deeper underneath your gums where brushing or flossing can’t reach.
However, if the bacteria isn’t removed and left to flourish, it can turn into periodontal disease. The microbes—yes, eww— start to destroy the tissue that holds your gums to the roots of your teeth. These are called “pockets” and will need to be treated by a dental hygienist. Eventually, the bacteria can reach the supporting bone underneath your gums, and will actually start to break down the bone of the jaw. Once the bone is disintegrated, it does not grow back and can eventually lose hold on your teeth, causing them to fall out. Periodontal disease doesn’t just affect your gums, as it has also been associated with Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes. Yes, this might sound like a horror movie or a recurring nightmare many people have — but it is incredibly common. Up to 25 percent of adults over the age of 65 have lost all their teeth due to untreated oral disease.
Why preventative dentistry is tough: Cost and Dentalphobia
You may be thinking, why would anyone not get their cavities treated early on, to avoid all this unnecessary pain and potentially risk losing their teeth? For starters, dentalphobia is one of the most common anxieties among Americans. In fact, one recent study found that up to 60 percent of Americans could be avoiding dental visits based out of fear, while other factors like cost of care may be deterrents, especially among uninsured or underinsured people. Although cost is a barrier to preventative care, research shows that for every dollar spent on preventative dental, up to $50 can be avoided on reparative or restorative care down the line. This is why access to oral healthcare for everyone is so important.
The best preventative care routine
Needless to say, when you think dentistry: Think preventistry. So many of these problems can be avoided merely by developing consistent brushing and flossing routines and visiting your dentist on a regular basis. Ironically, people who don’t like going to the dentist and put off their visits, ultimately end up seeing the dentist more frequently in the long run to fix bigger concerns that resulted from their skipped dental check-ups in the first place.
As always, it all comes down to those basics, like following a healthy diet that limits sugar, brushing properly with a fluoridated toothpaste twice a day and visiting your dentist once every six months so that they can catch cavities when they are still treatable.