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Common Dental Health Questions

1. How safe are dental X-rays?

Exposure to all sources of radiation — including the sun, minerals in the soil, appliances in your home, and dental X-rays — can damage the body’s tissues and cells and can lead to the development of cancer in some instances. Fortunately, the dose of radiation you are exposed to during the taking of X-rays is extremely small.

2. What are dental sealants, who should get them, and how long do they last?

Sealants are a thin, plastic coating that are painted on the chewing surfaces of teeth — usually the back teeth (the premolars, and molars) — to prevent tooth decay. The painted on liquid sealant quickly bonds into the depressions and groves of the teeth forming a protective shield over the enamel of each tooth.

Typically, children should get sealants on their permanent molars and premolars as soon as these teeth come in. In this way, the dental sealants can protect the teeth through the cavity-prone years of ages 6 to 14. However, adults without decay or fillings in their molars can also benefit from sealants.

Sealants can protect the teeth from decay for up to 10 years, but they need to be checked for chipping or wear at regular dental check-ups.

3. When will drill-less dentistry become a reality?

Drill-less dentistry, also called air abrasion and microabrasion, is being offered by some dentists now. Air abrasion can be used to remove tooth decay, to remove some old composite restorations, to prepare a tooth surface for bonding or sealants, and to remove superficial stains and discolorations. The air abrasion instrument works like a mini sandblaster to spray away the decay, stain, or to prepare the tooth surface for bonding or sealant application. With air abrasion, a fine stream of particles is aimed at the tooth surface. These particles are made of silica, aluminum oxide, or a baking soda mixture and are propelled toward the tooth surface by compressed air or a gas that runs through the dental handpiece. Small particles of decay, stain, etc., on the tooth surface are removed as the stream of particles strikes them. The remnant particles are then “suctioned” away

4. What’s the latest word on the safety of amalgam-type fillings?

Over the past several years, concerns have been raised about silver-colored fillings, otherwise called amalgams. Because amalgams contain the toxic substance mercury, some people think that they are responsible for causing a number of diseases, including autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

The American Dental Association (ADA), the FDA, and numerous public health agencies say amalgams are safe, and that any link between mercury-based fillings and disease is unfounded. The cause of autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis remains unknown. Additionally, there is no solid, scientific evidence to back up the claim that if a person has amalgam fillings removed, he or she will be cured of these or any other diseases.

In March of 2002, the FDA reconfirmed the safety of amalgams. Although amalgams do contain mercury, when they are mixed with other metals, such as silver, copper, tin, and zinc, they form a stable alloy that dentists have used for more than 100 years to fill and preserve hundreds of millions of decayed teeth. The National Institutes of Health conducted several large-scale studies that concluded in 2006 that amalgam fillings were safe.

In addition, there has been concern over the release of a small amount of mercury vapor from these fillings, but according to the ADA, there is no scientific evidence that this small amount results in adverse health effects.

5. How do whitening toothpastes work and how effective are they?

All toothpastes help remove surface stains through the action of mild abrasives. Some whitening toothpastes contain gentle polishing or chemical agents that provide additional stain removal. Whitening toothpastes can help remove surface stains only and do not contain bleach; over-the-counter and professional whitening products contain hydrogen peroxide (a bleaching substance) that helps remove stains on the tooth surface as well as stains deep in the tooth. None of the home use whitening toothpastes can come even close to producing the bleaching effect you get from your dentist’s office through chair-side bleaching or power bleaching. Whitening toothpastes can lighten your tooth’s color by about one shade. In contrast, light-activated whitening conducted in your dentist’s office can make your teeth three to eight shades lighter.

6. I’m interested in changing the shape of my teeth. What options are available?

Several different options are available to change the shape of teeth, make teeth look longer, close spaces between teeth or repair chipped or cracked teeth. Among the options are bonding, crowns, veneers, and recontouring.

* Dental bonding is a procedure in which a tooth-colored resin material (a durable plastic material) is applied to the tooth surface and hardened with a special light, which ultimately “bonds” the material to the tooth.

* Dental crowns are tooth-shaped “caps” that are placed over teeth. The crowns, when cemented into place, fully encase the entire visible portion of a tooth that lies at and above the gum line.

* Veneers (also sometimes called porcelain veneers or dental porcelain laminates) are wafer-thin, custom-made shells of tooth-colored materials that are designed to cover the front surface of teeth. These shells are bonded to the front of the teeth.

* Recontouring or reshaping of the teeth (also called odontoplasty, enameloplasty, stripping, or slenderizing) is a procedure in which small amounts of tooth enamel are removed to change a tooth’s length, shape or surface.

Each of these options differ with regard to cost, durability, “chair time” necessary to complete the procedure, stain resistant qualities, and best cosmetic approach to resolving a specific problem. Talk to your dentist to see if one is right for you.

7. I have a terrible fear of going to the dentist yet I know I need to. What should I do?

If you fear going to the dentist, you are not alone. Between 9% and 15% of Americans state they avoid going to the dentist because of anxiety or fear. The first thing you should do is talk with your dentist. In fact, if your dentist doesn’t take your fear seriously, find another dentist. The key to coping with dental anxiety is to discuss your fears with your dentist. Once your dentist knows what your fears are, he or she will be better able to work with you to determine the best ways to make you less anxious and more comfortable.

The good news is that today there are a number of strategies that can be used to help reduce fear, anxiety, and pain. These strategies include use of medications (to either numb the treatment area or sedatives or anesthesia to help you relax), use of lasers instead of the traditional drill for removing decay, application of a variety of mind/body pain and anxiety-reducing techniques (such as guided imagery, biofeedback, deep breathing, acupuncture, and other mental health therapies), and perhaps even visits to a dentophobia clinic or a support group.

8. There are so many toothpastes to choose from; how do I know which one to use?

Here’s some advice. First, when purchasing a toothpaste for you or your child, select one that contains fluoride. Fluoride-containing toothpastes have been shown to prevent cavities. However, one word of caution: check the manufacturer’s label; some toothpastes are not recommended in children under age 6. This is because young children swallow toothpaste and swallowing too much fluoride can lead to tooth discoloration in permanent teeth.

It is also wise to select a product approved by the American Dental Association. The ADA’s Seal of Acceptance means that the product has met ADA criteria for safety and effectiveness and that packaging and advertising claims are scientifically supported. Some manufacturers choose not to seek the ADA’s Seal of Acceptance. Although these products may be safe and effective, these products’ performance have not been evaluated or endorsed by the ADA.

Next, when considering other properties of toothpaste — such as whitening toothpastes, tartar-control, gum care, desensitizing, etc. — the best advice for selecting among these products may be to simply ask your dental hygienist or dentist what the greatest concerns are for your mouth at this time. After consulting with your dentist or hygienist about your oral health’s greatest needs, look for products within that category (for example, within the tartar control brands or within the desensitizing toothpaste brands) that have received the ADA Seal of Acceptance.

Finally, some degree of personal preference comes into play. Choose the toothpaste that tastes and feels best. Gel or paste, wintergreen or spearmint all work alike. If you find that certain ingredients are irritating to your teeth, cheeks or lips, or if your teeth have become more sensitive, or if your mouth is irritated after brushing, try changing toothpastes. If the problem continues, see your dentist.

9. I can’t afford regular dental care. Are there some resources available to me?

Yes. Thousands of dentists across the country offer their services at reduced fees through dental society-sponsored assistance programs. Since aid varies from one community to another, call your local dental society for information about where you can find the nearest assistance programs and low-cost care locations (such as public health clinics and dental school clinics).

Check your local phone book or the internet for your local dental society (for example, the Georgia Dental Society, Georgia Dental Association, or search by your county or region).

The American Dental Association’s website provides links to state dental associations local societies, and state dental schools. Ask your dentist or call your local social service organization for assistance in locating these types of services in your community.

10. I recently moved and need a new dentist. How can I find one?

The American DAT Association offers these suggestions:



* Ask family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers for their recommendations.

* Ask your family doctor or local pharmacist.

* If you’re moving, your current dentist may be able to make a recommendation.

* Call or write your local or state dental society. Your local and state dental societies also may be listed in the telephone directory under “dentists” or “associations.” The ADA provides a list of local and state dental societies at their website.

* Visit more than one dentist before selecting one you feel you can build a good long-term relationship with.

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