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Understanding the Dental Exam

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Updated March 08, 2012

Part of your routine dental care, along with having your teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist, includes having a complete dental exam performed by your dentist. It is important to be checked regularly by your dentist (at least every year or whatever is recommended based on the health of your mouth).

The Periodic Oral Exam

At each dental visit, the dental technician will review your medical history to see if there are any changes that need to be updated. It is important to let the technician know if you are on any new medications or if you were diagnosed with any medical conditions since your last dental visit.

Once you've discussed any medical changes you may have, the dentist will perform a visual exam of your mouth, which includes your teeth and surrounding soft tissue. He/she will check each individual tooth with an instrument called the explorer. This instrument helps the dentist detect any areas of concern on each tooth. The dentist checks for decay, stain, areas around the gum line (to check for gum recession), and the margins around any existing fillings or crowns.

Use of Dental X-rays

In order to help find problems in the mouth, your dentist may request to have dental x-rays taken. These pictures of your mouth and teeth will help your dentist diagnose any potential or existing conditions that require attention.

Diagnosing Problems

Your dentist uses a variety of methods to help diagnose any problems you may have. This may include:

  • A visual oral exam
  • Dental x-rays
  • Intra-oral pictures
  • Oral cancer screenings
  • Discussions with you about any changes you have noticed since your last visit

Discussing Concerns With Your Dentist

One way to help your dentist uncover any potential issues with your dental health is to discuss any concerns you may have or problems you have experienced since your last dental visit. Believe it or not, your symptoms alone can help the dentist tremendously in diagnosing a dental condition. Just remember, there is no concern too small to discuss.

Cancer Screening Exam

Most dentists conduct an oral cancer screening exam. This may include a simple visual exam of the soft tissue to check for any apparent lesions, lumps, discolorations or other areas of concerns. An oral exam alone cannot conclude whether any area is cancerous or not. If your dentist finds an unusual spot that he/she wishes to investigate further, they may refer you to an oral surgeon for a second opinion or obtain a biopsy of the area to send off to a lab for further review.

Your dentist may also offer a special cancer screening that includes rinsing with dye and shining a special light inside the mouth to detect any unhealthy areas on the tissue that aren't visible during a standard oral exam.

Patients Who Should Consider Regular Oral Cancer Screenings

You may want to consider specialized cancer screenings if you have any of the following factors that may put you at an increased risk for oral cancer:

  • Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, pipes, chewing tobacco, cigars (even if you are not inhaling) and dip.
  • Alcohol use
  • Previous history of oral cancer

Ask your dentist if they think you are a candidate for special oral cancer screenings.

Does dental insurance cover exams?

Typically, dental insurance plans cover routine dental maintenance, which includes periodic oral examinations. They may not include the special oral cancer screenings discussed above, so you will want to check on this ahead of time or ask your dental provider to check on that for you. It is always advisable to have a detailed list of what your individual plan covers for your own information.

Sources:

American Pregnancy Association. "Dental Work During Pregnancy." Accessed January 19, 2012. http://www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/dentalwork.html

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  5. Understanding the Dental Exam

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