As a dentist who has spent the last 40 years studying and practicing methods to improve the oral health of my patients and the larger community, I feel compelled to publicly address several observations during this current pandemic. COVID-19 has already disrupted many of the normal systems and conventional practices of society here and around the world.
Some of them, such as supply chains for food and other essential materials, will rebound quickly. We will not run out of food, fuel or clothing. Even toilet paper will soon be back on the shelves. When the first wave of this disease has passed and we have dramatically increased our ability to test for the virus, healthy and low-risk people will be able to return to work and school and church and the gym. Eventually we will all get used to a new normal.
But it will take time to redevelop other systems, such as elective surgical procedures including dentistry. Because of the virulence of this particular pathogen, its widespread prevalence, and the current lack of an effective vaccine, it will be some time before there is enough personal protective equipment and new mechanical systems developed to safely allow medical and dental teams to return to certain routine procedures. But there are things everyone can do right now to reduce their risk of dental disease and the need for treatment.
Of the many reasons for which I am proud to be a member of the dental profession, by far the greatest is the huge emphasis it has placed on prevention. Dentistry wrote the book on prevention at least 60 years ago and has been editing it ever since. That effort will continue to evolve but the messages are more important right now than ever before.
For the immediate future, people cannot expect to have access to routine dental care for the various reasons that they have in the past. I offer the following recommendations to help us get through this to a time when we can. These recommendations are simple and will be familiar to most people but, in my experience, many people either have not heard the messages or, unfortunately, do not follow the advice.
First, clean your teeth thoroughly twice a day with toothbrush and dental floss. Bacterial plaque is always growing on our teeth and is responsible for causing cavities and periodontal disease. These are two of the most widespread diseases in the world and are largely preventable. Regular brushing and flossing between the teeth where the brush cannot reach are the main methods of reducing these diseases. Go to YouTube and view some of the many videos of effective brushing and flossing.
Second, reduce dietary sugar to as close to zero as possible, especially soda pop and other sugary drinks that create an acidic environment in the mouth. It is this acidic environment that dissolves the minerals from our teeth and allows decay to start.
Third, teach these things to your children. In particular, do them yourself and stick to it – your children are always watching you and tend to follow your behavior.
These preventive techniques are particularly important if you have been diagnosed with active dental decay but won’t be able to have it treated for a while. Keep the sugar low to slow the progress of the decay in your tooth/teeth. As always, your family dentist is your best resource if you have questions regarding your oral health. While all dentists are currently limited to treatment specific to relieving infection and severe pain, they can guide you through this time period. A call to the emergency room should only be considered as a last resort. Emergency room personnel are not trained to treat dental disease and their limited equipment and resources must be reserved as much as possible.
As we have all heard so many times, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s time to take our oral health seriously and do what we can for ourselves.
John Clayburgh, DDS, is from Grand Forks.