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Health risks of postponing elective dental treatments

In March 2020, ADA recommended that dentists postpone all elective procedures to stop the spread of COVID-19. As the pandemic gets more under control, dental surgeries throughout the US are reopening their practices for routine care. Texas, Colorado, Illinois and Georgia are just some of the current 42 states where dental offices are open for elective procedures.

But after weeks of being able to offer only emergency dental care, many practices are finding their appointment schedule fully-booked, forcing some patients to postpone elective treatments for even longer.

Not being able to get an appointment isn’t the only reason people are putting off their dental care. Some patients, especially those in the high-risk category, are concerned about visiting the dentist for fear of catching the coronavirus. Since COVID-19 is likely to be around in some form until a vaccine becomes publicly available, this could mean delaying elective treatments for months or years.

How dangerous is it when someone postpones routine dental work? How long can they put off making an appointment until their health is at serious risk?

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Here are some short-term and long-term consequences of delaying elective dental treatments you should warn your patients about before convincing them to make that appointment they’ve been putting off for far too long.

Stained teeth

Thoroughly cleaning a patient’s teeth is one of the most basic procedures performed in dental practices. Not only does this help teeth look whiter, but it also protects teeth and gums from disease. When a patient doesn’t have their teeth professionally cleaned, stains caused by eating and drinking seemingly harmless things build up and can cause teeth to look yellow.

COVID19 handout dental practices pdf file

While badly stained teeth can be improved through professional teeth whitening, it’s much quicker, cheaper and simpler to maintain a bright white smile by having them cleaned by a dental hygienist on a regular basis.

More expensive

One of the things dentists look for during routine checkups is tooth decay. If a patient has minor tooth decay, they might not even realize it. But a dentist will. Filling a small cavity before it begins causing big problems is a quick, cheap and pain-free experience.

But if a patient waits until they’re in pain before they go to the dentist, their dental problems are going to be much more severe and therefore treatment will be more expensive. If a cavity is left untreated, it could reach down into the dentin. Dentin decay can still be repaired with a filling, but it will be more expensive than a minor cavity.

When tooth decay reaches down into the pulp, a root canal is needed, which is significantly more expensive and painful than a simple filling. 

If a patient is in incredible pain, they could head to the emergency room for some relief. Between 2000 and 2012, visits to the ER for dental reasons doubled from 1.1 million to 2.2 million. That’s the equivalent to one every 15 seconds. Although ERs rarely provide more than painkillers and antibiotics, patients pay an average of $749 per visit. That’s around three times the price of a routine dental visit.

Painful

Delaying a routine dental checkup isn’t just painful for the wallet. It’s going to cause the patient considerable agony, too. What starts off as a slight toothache that comes and goes can easily morph into an unbearable sensation too painful to withstand a second longer.

This situation usually results in an expensive emergency treatment to relieve the pain that could have easily been avoided by attending routine 6-month checkups and making an appointment as soon as any oral pain is present. 

Tooth loss

If advanced tooth decay has caused an abscess, the patient is at risk of serious infections which can prove fatal if they’re not treated. Sometimes an abscess can be treated with a root canal procedure. But usually, an extraction is required to solve the problem. Paying for a tooth extraction and a replacement tooth is extremely expensive, especially when a patient was expecting to pay for a simple cavity.

Serious illness

Dentists and dental hygienists do so much more than just perform dental work. They can also spot early signs of illness in patients. During a checkup, dental staff can identify symptoms of diabetes and even COVID-19.

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By postponing their next dental visit, not only are patients putting their dental health at risk, but they’re also opening themself up to the possibility of all kinds of illnesses which could go untreated.

When some dental problems aren't taken care of, they can directly cause other health problems. Because the mouth is the entry point to the digestive and respiratory tracts, poor dental health can result in:

  • Endocarditis: the infection of the inner lining of the heart chambers or valves.
  • Cardiovascular disease: as a result of inflammation and infections caused by oral bacteria.   
  • Birth complications: periodontitis has been linked to premature birth and low birth weight-
  • Pneumonia: caused by bacteria being pulled into the lungs. 

Convince your patients

While you can’t force patients to make appointments, as a dental professional it’s your job to do all you can to explain the risks of delaying elective dental treatments and encourage your patients to make their next dental appointment before they leave your practice.

Whatever their reason for postponing their next visit, the consequences of doing so are never worth it. Help them understand the importance of maintaining their oral health care and attending routine check-ups.