Unlike many of us, Emma Prott-Buttel likes going to the dentist.
“I love it,” the Sydneysider says.
“They make it entertaining, and well, I’m not meant to laugh but they make me laugh.”
Emma sees her dentist every six months, in part because of her disability — she has epilepsy from an acquired brain injury which impacts her manual dexterity, making it harder for her to clean her teeth effectively.
At every visit, Emma’s dentist checks and helps her improve her brushing technique.
“I have to use an electric toothbrush, and I use a soft head, and this special toothpaste,” says Emma.
The National Study of Adult Oral Health 2017–2018 found that just over half of Australians aged 15 years or older, visit the dentist at least once a year like Emma.
But the study also showed use of dental services is declining, and nearly one in four people (38.8 per cent) are avoiding or delaying care due to cost, says Dr Liana Luzzi, Interim Director of the Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health (ARCPOH) at the University of Adelaide, which conducted the research.
So how often do we really need to be booking in a visit to the dentist’s chair? Can we get away with less regularly to save time and money?
What’s your individual risk?
How often you go depends on your risk factors and the state of your mouth when you’re visiting your dentist, says Dentist and Oral Health Promoter for the Australian Dental Association, Dr Mikaela Chinotti.
A Cochrane Review released last year found “probably little to no difference between 24-monthly and six-monthly or risk-based check-ups in tooth decay … gum disease or wellbeing” for adults based on their review of two studies.
And while the recommendation of the Australian Dental Association is that you visit your dentist “regularly”, Dr Chinotti says that means different thing for different people.
“When we say regularly, we’re recommending it to be based on what your dentist recommends to you,” she says.
“For some people it may be six months, for some people it could be a year, or even maybe slightly longer than a year.”
Dr Luzzi says it’s also better to go to the same dental clinic, so they can get a sense of your oral health over time, and identify any problems early.
These could include how well you brush your teeth, how often you brush, and your risk of tooth decay.
If you’re a smoker or a have diabetes that puts you at higher risk, says Dr Luzzi. And certain medical conditions or medications that impact your saliva production — which is so important in protecting your teeth — can also mean more regular visits to your dentist will be needed.
Some people might have a lot of these risk factors combined which increases their overall risk, Dr Chinotti says.
“It’s kind of creating a bit of a perfect storm.”
There are also some genetic factors that affect our mouths, but Dr Chinotti says recent studies have shown it’s more the environment we’re in, including the foods we’re exposed to and our oral hygiene, that dictates the appearance of tooth decay.
Can we decrease our risk?
Given the environmental factors are key, there are things we can do at home to try and reduce our risk (and our dental visits).
Dr Chinotti has three tips:
- Brush your teeth twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste. “Ideally, when you brush you spit out the toothpaste and don’t rinse, and that allows the fluoride to be exposed to the teeth for longer providing longer protection,” she says.
- Clean between your teeth every day. You can either use floss or interdental brushes, which are short wires with bristles all around them like tiny kitchen cleaning brushes, to do this.
- Lower your intake of added sugars.
The World Health Organization recommends, for better health outcomes and to decrease your risk of tooth decay sugars, should make up 5 per cent or less of your daily dietary intake, Dr Chinotti says.
“So for the average individual that equates to six teaspoons or 24 grams of added sugars in a day,” she says.
“That can be a tricky target to hit, she says, because added sugars are often in processed foods like sauces or cereals.”
She also recommends limiting your intake of sugary and fizzy drinks. Even drinks like kombucha, which are low in sugar, are still carbonated, meaning they’re acidic and can erode your teeth over time if you drink them often.
Find a dentist who suits you
For Emma, it’s important she’s found a dentist she’s happy with, who makes her comfortable by explaining what they’re going to do before they do it, and helping her relax when she’s in the chair.
For her mum Penny that can sometimes mean a longer wait.
“Sometimes the appointment with Emma at the dentist runs a bit longer because they’re laughing and joking so much, and having too much fun,” she says.
This is general information only. For detailed personal advice, you should see a qualified dentist who knows your medical history.
Suzannah Lyons is a freelance science journalist. She previously worked for ABC Science, ABC Open, ABC Emergency and Catalyst. You can follow her on Twitter at @ZtheTrain.
ABC Everyday in your inbox
Get our newsletter for the best of ABC Everyday each week