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Your dentist's complete checklist - they're looking for more than just cavities

Posted July 8, 2019 5:00 a.m. EDT

Dentists will check your gums for gum disease, and your tongue, mouth, jaw and neck for oral cancer during the exam, in addition to checking your teeth for cavities and other issues. (anatoliy_gleb/Big Stock Photo)

This story was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Dental Society.

Routine dental check-ups can uncover much more than the dreaded cavity.

Mouths are like windows to the rest of the body – if something is going wrong internally, your dentist may spot telling signs before you even know to look for symptoms. Heart problems, certain types of cancer, osteoporosis, reflux, dementia, diabetes and more can be found during routine dental examinations.

The Exam

During your check-up, your dentist or hygienist will discuss your medical history with you before examining your mouth.

Depending on your dental and medical history, you may require X-rays. Typically, if you are a regular at the dentist, you will only need X-rays every few years unless you have had recent dental or gum issues.

Dentists will check your gums for gum disease, and your tongue, mouth, jaw and neck for oral cancer during the exam, in addition to checking your teeth for cavities and other issues.

"Teeth cleanings and cavity checks are a small portion of what constitutes a thorough dental check-up," explained Dr. Meenal Patel of Preston Dental Loft in Cary. "Your dentist should be talking to you about your oral hygiene habits and diet, as well as evaluating your overall risk for other oral health issues and discussing preventative care for the year ahead."

Disease Prevention

Bi-annual oral health exams can help identify any issues early when treatment is often simpler and more likely to be successful – not to mention less expensive than waiting until problems manifest. Being consistent with your dental check-ups also helps to prevent many problems from ever developing to begin with.

"You'd be surprised how many health issues can be caught early through routine dental checkups," Patel said. "The number of patients I've seen that hadn't visited their medical doctor in the past couple of years is astounding. I've even referred several patients out because of high blood pressure, which can be a silent killer if not treated long term."

According to the American Heart Association, regular teeth cleanings and scrapings can reduce inflammation-causing bacterial growth that can cause heart attacks and strokes. Out of 100,000 people studied over seven years, those who received teeth cleanings had a 24 percent lower risk of heart attack and a 13 percent lower risk of stroke than those who never received teeth cleanings.

Other diseases such as diabetes, GERD or acid reflux, osteoporosis and eating disorders can be spotted by a dentist or hygienist due to early risk factors that materialize in the mouth. These telling oral health issues include gum disease, enamel erosion, receding gums, loose teeth or dry mouth, among others.

Spotting Problems

If you experience any of the following issues, you should schedule an appointment with a dentist as soon as possible.

  • Your gums are puffy and may bleed when brushing or flossing.
  • There is a concerning spot or sore in your mouth that isn't going away.
  • You consistently have bad breath and a bad taste in your mouth.
  • Your teeth are sensitive to hot or cold.
  • You have dry mouth.
  • You have problems swallowing.
  • You have difficulty chewing.
  • Your jaw hurts or pops when moving, chewing or when you first wake up.
  • You notice pain or swelling in your mouth, neck or face.

You will also want to check in with your dentist if you:

  • Are pregnant
  • Smoke
  • Have had dental procedures such as crowns, implants, fillings, root canals, etc.
  • Have a family history of dental issues such as gum disease or tooth decay
  • Are undergoing certain medical treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation or hormone replacement therapy
  • Have a medical condition such as HIV, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or eating disorders.

"If you have a sore that persists for more than a week, if there are lesions on the tongue or in other areas of the mouth, or if there is inexplicable bleeding that persists, these are signs that you should immediately schedule an appointment with a dentist as these symptoms indicate disease or more serious problems," Patel said.

5 Healthy Habits to Implement

Going to the dentist consistently can help spot early symptoms or prevent issues before they emerge, but there are also healthy habits you should be building on your own.

  1. Brush your teeth twice each day for at least two minutes.
  2. Floss daily.
  3. Follow healthy living practices such as eating well and exercising.
  4. Keep up with your routine dental exams.
  5. Talk about any issues or concerns with your dentist.

If you do not have a dentist yet, the American Dental Association has a Find-a-Dentist tool that can make the search process quick and simple.

This story was written for our sponsor, North Carolina Dental Society.