An oral exam is akin to a physical for your teeth and gums. During this procedure, your dentist and dental hygienist examine your mouth and look for signs of any ailments such as tooth decay, gum disease, and oral cancer. Regular exams ensure that oral health problems are caught early when they are easiest to treat, and they also allow your dentist to monitor the progression of certain health issues over time.
An oral exam is often conducted during the same appointment as a dental cleaning. Your dental hygienist will begin by cleaning your teeth, and then your dentist will spend some time evaluating your oral health more closely. Dental insurance typically covers the cost of oral exams and x-rays since they are important preventative care.
WHEN TO GET AN ORAL EXAM
Most patients need to see their dentist every six months for a routine oral exam. If you have ongoing oral health problems, your dentist may want to see you more often. Children should have their first oral exam between the ages of 6 and 12 months, and every six months thereafter. This allows dentists to keep track of tooth alignment issues and refer young patients to an orthodontist for braces or Invisalign as needed.
It is common for patients-especially those who have dental phobia or anxiety-to put off their oral exams. Some patients assume that if they do not have any dental pain or other serious symptoms, they do not need to see the dentist. However, most dental problems, like cavities, don’t cause noticeable symptoms until they are quite serious, so it is essential to schedule and attend your six-month checkups even if you have not had any trouble with your teeth.
REASONS FOR ORAL EXAMS
Oral exams are an important part of preventative health care, just like physicals, vaccinations, and blood tests. There are four primary reasons to see your dentist for regular checkups.
Tooth Decay Detection
Tooth decay occurs when the bacteria in your mouth feed on sugar and secrete acids that wear away your tooth enamel. In its early stages, you may not notice any symptoms, but later on, tooth decay can lead to tooth pain, sensitivity to heat and cold, bad breath, and unsightly black spots on the teeth. During your oral exam, your dentist will visually examine your teeth and also take x-rays to locate any cavities that may be hidden between your teeth. Any small cavities can be filled to prevent the decay from getting any worse. If you wait too long to seek treatment for decay, your dentist may have to cover your tooth with a crown, or possibly even extract it and replace it with an implant.
Gum Health Evaluation
Gum disease begins with minor symptoms like redness, swelling, and bleeding during brushing. If your dentist detects the problem at this stage, you can usually treat gum disease just by improving your oral hygiene routine and perhaps using an an antiseptic mouthwash. However, if gum disease is allowed to progress, it may require surgical treatment or a deep cleaning procedure to correct. Plus, severe gum disease can lead to loose and missing teeth. If you have regular oral exams, your dentist will catch and treat gum disease before it has a chance to worsen.
Oral cancer is most common in smokers and heavy drinkers, but it can affect anyone. The early symptoms, which may include white spots on the gums or cheeks, are easy to overlook. However, your dentist will screen you for oral cancer as a part of your oral exam. The sooner the cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat, and the less likely it is to spread to other locations like your lymph nodes and jaw bone tissue.
The Mouth-Body Connection
Oral exams are not just about the health of your teeth and gums. Your oral health is strongly connected to your full-body health. For example, people with gum disease are more likely to suffer from heart disease. Tooth pain can impact your diet, and a deficient diet can increase your risk of a whole array of ailments. Regular oral exams ensure any oral health problems are detected and treated in a timely manner so they don’t result in more serious problems elsewhere in your body.
WHAT TO EXPECT DURING YOUR ORAL EXAM
An oral exam should be simple and painless from the patient’s perspective. During your first exam with a new dentist, he or she will review your medical history. Your dentist will want to know if you suffer from any chronic health conditions, whether you’ve had surgery in the past, and what medications you might be taking. It’s important to tell your dentist about any and all medications, supplements, or herbal remedies you may use as these substances can affect the way you react to anesthetics and sedatives that your dentist may use for future procedures. You should also tell your dentist about any dental treatments or conditions you have had in the past so that they can more closely monitor you for any changes or outcomes related to those conditions.
If it has been a while since you’ve had x-rays taken of your mouth and jaw, your dentist will probably take x-rays before proceeding with the rest of your oral exam. Usually, x-rays are taken once a year, so you will not need them at every checkup appointment. The process of having dental x-rays taken is quick and painless. You’ll be asked to bite down on a special device that holds x-ray film. Your dentist or hygienist will place a lead guard over your chest and neck before pushing a button to activate the x-ray machine. Your dentist will review the x-rays and discuss what they see.
If you are also having your teeth professionally cleaned during this appointment, your hygienist will likely proceed with the cleaning before your dentist visually examines your teeth. It’s easier for your dentist to closely examine your teeth and gums when they are freshly cleaned. Once the cleaning is complete, your dentist will use a mirror and other specialized tools to take a look at each of your teeth. He or she may also palpate your jaw to check for any bumps or abnormalities. You may then be asked to bite down so your dentist can observe how your teeth line up and evaluate any problems with your bite.
Discussion of Symptoms
If you have been dealing with any symptoms such as jaw pain, jaw stiffness, sensitivity to heat and cold, or bad breath, bring these problems to your dentist’s attention during your oral exam appointment. They can use these symptoms to focus their examination. If you wear a retainer or bite guard to bed, mention this to your dentist. You may also want to bring the retainer or bite guard with you so that your dentist can make sure it still fits and is working properly. If you feel that your retainer or bite guard is causing you pain or discomfort, bring this up to your dentist during the oral exam.
If your dentist does notice any cavities, gum disease, or other problems during your oral exam, they will discuss your treatment options and help you schedule the appropriate follow-up appointments to have the problems addressed. Your dentist and hygienist may also make some recommendations for improving your brushing and flossing routine based on their observations of your oral health. For example, if they notice a lot of tartar on your molars, they may recommend spending more time brushing in this area.