The first time I ever went to the dentist I was 19 years old. Growing up, no one in my family went to the dentist. Most people I knew were missing multiple teeth by the time they hit middle age. Dentists were for people with money, or in case of a severe emergency. I got all the way to age 19 before my first emergency hit, in the form of an impacted wisdom tooth.
I was a sophomore in college. I had no money and no insurance and I was in terrible pain that no amount of Long Island Iced Teas could touch. When I couldn’t take the pain anymore I grabbed my shiny new credit card with its impossibly high credit limit and, scared to death, dragged myself to the first dentist I found in the Yellow Pages (note to younger people, this was like a paperback version of google where you could find phone numbers). I left several hours later with a mouth full of bloody cotton balls, a maxed out credit card and four fewer wisdom teeth.
The second time I ever went to the dentist I was 25. I’d just gotten a job where, for the first time ever, I had dental insurance. One of my teeth had been bothering me for a while, so I figured I would get it checked out. I had my very first full dental exam and cleaning. It turned out my mouth was a mess. I had 12 cavities (seriously), my gums were in bad shape because I didn’t floss (honestly I didn’t even know what floss was until that day), and the hygienist had to teach me the “right” way to brush my teeth.
“If you start taking care of your teeth, you’ll still have them when you’re 90,” I remember her saying. That gave me pause. I thought it was normal for people to lose teeth as they got older. She also explained how oral hygiene impacted overall health. I was shocked and embarrassed that I didn’t know this, and angry that my teeth were already in such bad shape from years of neglect.
After that, I went to the dentist every month for over a year until all my teeth were repaired. I started brushing more thoroughly and more frequently, and began flossing every day. My teeth and gums got dramatically healthier. And all that time in the chair cured me of my initial fear of the dentist.
Ever since then, I’ve been religious about regular dental check-ups. In the last 25 years since that first visit with the hygienist, every single tooth issue I’ve had has involved one of those original 12 teeth that were damaged before I first got insurance. No new tooth has developed a cavity or issue (knock on wood) since 1992.
I’m extremely grateful that I’ve had continuous dental insurance since then. Without it, I would have experienced a lot of pain over the years, and I have no doubt I’d be walking around today with a bunch of gaps in my mouth and a host of physical problems related to poor oral health.
Regular dental visits are more important than most people think. It’s not just about cleaning and shining your teeth. Those 6-month cleanings and check-ups have multiple benefits including:
- Detecting cavities when they’re just beginning, before they damage the tooth structure or the root
- Checking for various oral cancers
- Looking for signs of diseases that cause mouth symptoms, such as diabetes and HIV
- Maintaining healthy gums — gum inflammation can lead to heart disease, strokes, cognitive decline and other health problems outside of your mouth
- Helping pregnant women avoid low birth weights and pre-term labor
- Finding cracked teeth, loose fillings or loose crowns before they cause problems
- Providing personalized recommendations about how you can do a better job with brushing or flossing (for example, you may be doing a great job on your front teeth but missing crucial spots on your back teeth)
- Maintaining or improving the appearance of teeth to increase self-esteem
With so many health outcomes tied to oral health, it’s a travesty that we don’t have universal access to dental insurance. The implications of not being able to afford preventative dental care are far-reaching.
But what I don’t understand even more is people who have insurance and don’t use it. I’ve asked people about this and they generally say one of three things: they’re scared of the dentist, none of their teeth are bothering them, or they don’t have time. All totally understandable, but given the immense health benefits of those regular visits, it seems important to make it a priority to use your insurance and get your mouth checked out.
As for me, I went for my 6-month cleaning and check-up this morning. It took about an hour. The hygienist commended me for having no new cavities, told me that my gums look “great”, pointed out some spots I needed to focus on more during brushing, and gave me some tips on how to address dry mouth. As she handed me a new toothbrush and a container of floss I promised I’d see her again in 6 more months. And I will.
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