My teeth feel fine! I don't have time! Sitting in the chair makes me anxious! Most of us have no trouble coming up with reasons to delay seeing the dentist. But putting off your next appointment (or simply forgetting about it) can set you up for a mouthful of problems.
So how often should you go to the dentist, really? Here's what the experts have to say, and the convincing reasons to stay on schedule.
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Most adults and children should get dental check-ups every six months, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Twice-yearly visits can help catch tooth decay or other dental problems early, before it has a chance to cause pain or other problems.
Why Regular Dental Checkups Are Important
The benefits go far beyond getting a new toothbrush and some free toothpaste. "Going to the dentist twice per year allows you to be proactive instead of reactive in regards to your teeth and dental health," says Westchester, New York-based dentist Richard Lipari, DDS.
You'll Catch Problems Sooner, When They're Easier to Treat
You can't always feel problems like tooth decay or gum disease early on — but your dentist can see them. And spotting a problem earlier gives you a chance to address it before it spreads. "When gum disease and cavities are not resolved quickly, they can turn into larger issues such as loose teeth and root canals," Dr. Lipari says.
You'll Keep Your Teeth Healthy
If your pearly whites are already in pristine condition (or close enough), regular dental visits can help keep them that way. That deep-clean brushing and scraping, while not the most enjoyable, is a must for removing calculus (aka tartar) — plaque that builds up and hardens over time.
"Once plaque turns to calculus it's nearly impossible to remove with a toothbrush and requires a dental professional to remove it," Dr. Lipari says. Along with making it hard to clean your teeth, tartar also can lead to gingivitis, which is the early form of gum disease, per the American Dental Association (ADA).
The Dentist Will Check for Oral Cancer
In addition to examining your teeth, your dentist will check your tongue, head and neck for possible signs of oral cancer. It's quick and easy — and most of the time, they won't find anything. But it's an important chance to spot suspicious growths sooner, when they may be easier to treat, per the Mayo Clinic.
You'll Save Money and Time in the Long Run
Dental visits can be costly, especially if you don't have insurance. But the money you'll pay for a cleaning is a lot less than what you'll pay for a filling, root canal or other procedures. "That short appointment can help prevent cavities and gum disease, saving you a lot of time, money and effort in the future," Dr. Lipari says.
Do Certain Factors Mean You Need to Go More (or Less) Frequently?
Most people do well on a two-visit-per-year schedule. But in some cases, you and your dentist may decide it's worth scheduling checkups more often — up to three or four times a year, Dr. Lipari notes.
More frequent visits might be a good idea for:
- People with existing gum disease or dental problems. If you have signs of gingivitis (like swollen or bleeding gums or gums that itch), seeing the dentist more often can help resolve the problem and prevent it from turning into periodontitis, a severe gum infection that can cause tooth loss.
- Smokers. Smoking irritates the gums and can eventually cause periodontitis, Dr. Lipari says, so it's a good idea to see your dentist more frequently.
- People with a weakened immune system: When your immune system isn't operating at full force, you may be more prone to gum disease and tooth decay.
- Some pregnant people. Hormone changes during pregnancy can sometimes cause gingivitis. If you're experiencing gum swelling or bleeding, more frequent visits with the dentist can help get the problem under control, Dr. Lipari says.
What to Expect at a Dental Checkup
If it's been a while since your last chopper check, here's what you can expect.
- The hygienist will perform a cleaning. They'll use small metal tools to scrape plaque buildup off of your teeth, floss your teeth and brush your teeth using a special electric toothbrush. Kids might have a fluoride gel or foam applied to their teeth too, which can help prevent tooth decay.
- You may get X-rays. X-rays can detect problems that aren't otherwise visible, like early cavities, tooth decay or bone loss. These may not be required at every visit, per the Cleveland Clinic.
- The dentist will examine your teeth and mouth. They'll review your X-rays and take a look inside your mouth to see your teeth and gums. They'll also perform an oral cancer check by looking at the insides of your lips, the sides of your tongue and the roof and floor of your mouth.
The Bottom Line
It's a good idea to see the dentist every six months, or more often if you have gum or tooth problems or are at high risk for developing them. Some people with excellent dental hygiene may just be more prone to developing cavities, for instance.
If you're anxious about your visit, let the dentist know so you can find ways to address your discomfort.
Finally, know that there are options if you don't have dental insurance and are having trouble paying for your exam. "Many areas have dental schools where patients can seek out dental treatment at a reduced price, which can be a solution for preventive care," Dr. Lipari says.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.