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Protect Yourself, Infection Control Standards in Dentistry

Infection control in dentistry has particular standards. Learn how to protect yourself, your patients, and the reputation of your practice.

The dental office already has a terrible reputation amongst both children and adults. The vulnerability patients experience while a stranger is inspecting their mouth with sharp tools and a bright overhead light is enough to cause many overdue routine checkups. Add the potential for a painful, yet necessary oral procedure, giving patients even more reason to avoid the dental office. Dental health care professionals understand that patients do not need any more concerns for nervousness or aversion, especially regarding the spread of germs, viruses, and other infectious sources. Adherence to infection control and prevention standards is key to promoting patient health and operating a safe and reputable dental practice.

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What Are Infection Control Standards?

Infection control standards are a set of practices designed to reduce the risk of transmission of communicable diseases among healthcare workers, patients, and visitors in all health care settings. With a combination of common-sense practices and personal protective equipment, health care providers can protect themselves from infection and prevent the patient-to-patient transmission of infection. The set of infection prevention guidelines  includes hand hygiene, waste management, cough etiquette, use of personal protective equipment, environmental cleaning and disinfection practices, as well as other work practices to help reduce disease transmission.

Health care settings particularly require the regular practice of infection control and prevention standards due to the potential exposure to a variety of infectious agents. People infected or carrying some viruses, bacteria, or other infectious microbes may not show symptoms, but their interaction with the healthcare environment leaves susceptible people vulnerable to infection. Health care environments often have susceptible people, such as someone who is not vaccinated or a person with a weakened immune system. Environmental sources of germs include dry surfaces in patient care areas, wet surfaces, moist environments, indwelling medical devices, dust, and decaying debris. Infection control standards aim to address these factors of transmission in order to prevent the spread of infection.

Specific Standards in Dentistry

While general infection control and prevention standards apply across all health care settings, specific standards exist for each type of practice. In dentistry, the oral nature of the medicine calls for special attention to respiratory hygiene and dental unit water quality, as well as appropriate personal protective equipment and sharps safety. The two most specific recommendations concern dental unit water quality and personal protective equipment.

Dental unit water quality standards include using water that meets EPA regulatory standards for drinking water, as well as using sterile saline or sterile water as a coolant or irritant when performing surgical procedures. All dental water units should be clearly understood for the appropriate methods and equipment to maintain the proper quality of dental water. Each  unit comes with recommendations for monitoring water quality provided by the manufacturer of the unit or waterline treatment product, and these recommendations should be followed strictly.

Proper and accessible personal protective equipment (PPE) for all dental health care professionals is necessary for infection control. Glove usage is essential when there is potential for contact with bodily fluids, blood, mucous membranes, non-intact skin, or contaminated equipment. Because splashes or spattering of the body’s fluids are common in dental practice, protective clothing that covers the skin and personal clothing, as well as mouth, nose, and eye protection, is highly recommended.

Dental health care professionals are obliged to adhere to standard precautions such as cleanliness and disinfection of all exposed surfaces; assuring sterile instruments’ protection from recontamination by using appropriate barrier packages; using single-use instruments if sterilization is not possible; handling biopsy specimens with care and placing them in leakproof containers. They must also follow recommended protocols regarding decontamination, sterilization, disposal of clinical waste, and reprocessing of reusable instruments.

Cues for Infection Control Adherence

While it may be difficult to recognize whether all infection control standards are being rigorously applied in any health care setting, there are a few practices to look out for to ensure that prevention standards are being followed.

Hand hygiene is the most crucial measure to control the spread of infections among patients and dental health care professionals. Each routine dental examination and nonsurgical procedure calls for handwashing with water and plain  or antimicrobial soap. Dental health professionals should be wearing gloves whenever there is potential for contact with bodily fluids and mucous membranes. These gloves should not be washed or reused, and they should be discarded after each patient and before leaving the work area. Also, hand hygiene includes the care of fingernails.  Though research is inconclusive on nail polish, the nail length will be of importance and should not be seen past the fingertips when looking at the palm of the hand. 

Respiratory hygiene is particularly important for dentistry and oral medicine. Positive indicators of adherence to regulations include signs with instructions to patients to cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing, to responsibly dispose of tissues and reminders to wash hands. Health care settings that provide tissues, no-touch receptacles, cough masks, nasal filters, and hand sanitizer are likely to be particularly cognizant of infection control standards.

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Extra Preventative Precautions

Extra preventative precautions, in addition to proper adherence to infection control standards, can help reassure patients of the dental practice’s quality as well as protect a dental practice’s reputation.

Taking the time to verbally acknowledge the dental practice’s infection control processes and narrate the employment of these standards during any procedure can go a long way in helping patients feel safe, considered, and involved in their health care experience. Such communication contributes to building the trust necessary to maintain a reputation as a safe and thorough dental practice. 

While dental health care professionals are obliged to keep in mind current standards, knowledge of these standards should be considered the minimum. Keeping up to date with developing scientific information concerning infection control, disease management, and risk management in oral health care is essential to promoting patient health and operating a safe and reputable dental practice.