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Q: My dentist told me I should come in for teeth cleanings twice a year, but I’ll be honest: I feel like going even once every 12 months deserves a gold star. How bad is it for my health to avoid dentist appointments?
We definitely feel your pain (or your urge to avoid pain and skip your appointments, rather). Going to the dentist can be anxiety-inducing or even just hard to fit into your schedule if you’re not having an emergency. To get to the root of this one, we chatted with Maria Lopez Howell, D.D.S., an American Dental Association spokesperson, and Vera Tang, D.D.S., New York City-based dentist. Here’s what they have to say.
Consider one dentist appointment a year your absolute minimum. But you might need to go more frequently depending on your oral health.
How often you should go to the dentist depends on your teeth, gums, and how well you maintain good oral hygiene on your own. “As the American Dental Association points out, there is no one-size-fits-all regimen for anyone,” Dr. Lopez Howell says.
The ultimate goal is to see you often enough to ward off any mouth problems, Dr. Lopez Howell explains. Issues like tooth decay (cavities) and periodontitis (gum disease) can both lead to pain and tooth loss, and they’re very much avoidable. Seeing a dentist regularly can help prevent them altogether or, at the very least, stop them in their tracks. Getting into that chair at least once a year is key.
“I understand that life gets busy, so if you’re on the healthier side, once a year is fine,” Dr. Tang says. “Going twice a year would be on the safe side—any minor changes can be caught early and more easily remedied than if you wait the full year.”
So, how will you know if you’re a one-visit-a-year person or if you need to crank up that number? Easy: Your dentist will tell you. Then it’s on you to listen, and there are good reasons to do just that.
Keep in mind: The bacteria in your mouth are serious opportunists that can damage your oral health without you even realizing it.
A potentially harmful bacterial film called plaque is constantly forming on your teeth and gums. Plaque is a sticky, colorless substance that can eat away at your enamel (the hard outer covering of your teeth) and cause cavities. If you don’t get rid of plaque often enough, it can harden into what’s known as tartar or calculus, which can cause gum disease.
You really want to avoid plaque turning into tartar, which is where dental appointments come in. Even the most skilled brusher and flosser can’t remove tartar themselves. “It’s very much like barnacles on the side of a ship—after a certain point, you need to power wash it,” Dr. Tang says. “You can brush your teeth, but sometimes you need instruments and power tools in order to really clean them.”
Beyond that, seeing your dentist regularly can help keep more than your teeth healthy. Signs of various conditions like diabetes and anemia sometimes show up in your mouth, Dr. Tang says. If your dentist notices something awry during a visit, they can refer you to a specialist to check you out.
Seeing the dentist might also prompt you to take better care of your oral hygiene. You know how your teeth feel silky-smooth after a cleaning and inspire you to do whatever necessary to keep them that way? Dentists love that. “Some patients lose their motivation [for oral hygiene] over time, but when they come to see dentist, they really get encouraged,” Dr. Lopez Howell says.
If you’re avoiding seeing your dentist due to nerves, there are so many ways to make it a less scary experience.
“Talk to your dentist,” Dr. Lopez Howell says, recommending that you tell them about your dental fears and ask if there’s anything they or their office can do to help. “The dentist and hygienist are striving for an appointment that will make you healthier, encourage you to have good habits at home, and encourage you to come back to help prevent disease,” Dr. Lopez Howell says. They know that’s less likely if you feel like your appointments are torture, so you really all have a common goal of making them as pleasant as possible. Options might include listening to music on headphones, using nitrous oxide (laughing gas), and more, Dr. Tang says. (Here are other dentist-approved ways to make your next appointment easier.)
It gets better: Going to the dentist regularly can help you become more comfortable with the experience overall. “Over time you might become less anxious and realize it wasn’t that much to be worried about,” Dr. Lopez Howell says. Plus, keeping your teeth cleaner may result in less intense appointments in the future (or fewer appointments, period).
You can help make your dentist appointments run more smoothly by staying on top of your oral hygiene, thereby reducing plaque and tartar, Dr. Lopez Howell says. Brush your teeth for two minutes twice a day with flouride toothpaste (it strengthens your enamel) and floss daily. Sure, it might not be the most fun thing in the world. But as anyone who’s had to get a root canal can tell you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.