Like so many aspects of life, to visit the dentist or not became a difficult decision during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the American Dental Association (ADA) , 90% of all dental offices opted to close in the early days of the pandemic , except for urgent or emergency procedures.
The main reason for such widespread closures of dental offices in the early days of the pandemic was related to the nature of how COVID-19 spread—which is mainly through respiratory droplets we breathe through our nose and mouth—and how likely it was for the virus to spread in the dental setting.
Fortunately, as vaccination rates among patients, dentists and hygienists increased , more dental offices have reopened for a wide range of procedures, including routine work. In addition, widespread infection control recommendations from the American Dental Association (ADA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been put in place in dental practices around the country. These safeguards have helped keep dental professionals and patients as safe as possible.
In addition to following their COVID-19 infection control recommendations, the ADA and the CDC recommend that dental teams weigh the risk in their area with the need to provide care for patients. In addition, the CDC recommends that dental healthcare personnel (DHCP) should regularly consult their state dental boards and state or local health departments for current information and recommendations and requirements specific to their jurisdictions, which might change based on the level of community transmission .
These additional precautions designed to help protect you and DHCP have been effective. Studies show that COVID-19 infection rates among dentists are very low and remain lower than rates for other healthcare workers. A study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association in June 2021 , for example, found that monthly infection rates for dentists were as low as 0.2%. Over 785 dentists across the US were invited to participate in a monthly web-based survey from June through November 2020. Due to a high level of adherence to strict protocols, the probability of COVID-19 infection in a dentist's office is quite low.Getty Images
Even before the pandemic, dental offices were required to maintain pretty strict hygiene practices. Charles Sutera, DMD, FAGD , cosmetic dentist and founder of Aesthetic Smile Reconstruction, told Health. Dr. Sutera explained that all dental practices already follow OSHA standards for cleaning and sanitizing everything with EPA-approved disinfectants specially designed for use in a healthcare setting to kill viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Additionally, it has long been standard protocol for an entire dental care team to wear protective gear, including gloves, surgical masks, and goggles for eye protection to minimize the risk of transmitting germs from one patient to another. "These standards are in practice every day, regardless of whether there's a known outbreak of an infectious disease," said Dr. Sutera.
Due to COVID-19, you may notice additional safety precautions in place, many of them recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Dental Association . "When open during the COVID-19 pandemic, we enforce social distancing between all individuals in the office—patients and staff—when not wearing personal protective equipment, and routinely disinfect common surfaces in lobbies or waiting rooms, including doorknobs, countertops, and pens," said Dr. Sutera.
Most importantly, the CDC recommends dental offices postpone all non-urgent dental treatment for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 as well as for patients who meet the criteria for quarantine until they complete quarantine as described for healthcare settings above.
To make sure that patients do not post a COVID-19 risk, your dental office may contact you by phone, email, or text to screen you for COVID-19 symptoms.
As of the March 2022 CDC guidance , mask-wearing for some settings, including dental offices, continues. The requirement to continue to wear a mask in medical and dental offices applies to patients, residents, staff, vendors, and visitors.
As the ADA describes, the dentist's office may have taken safety precautions such as covering different surfaces for easier cleaning. Your dentist and dental office personnel may also be using different protective equipment such as different masks, face shields, gowns, and goggles.
Your dentist's office may also be employing different methods such as four-handed dentistry, high evacuation suction, and dental dams to minimize droplet spatter and aerosols.
The CDC also recommends that dental treatment should be in individual patient rooms whenever possible. Among other precautions, the CDC recommends at least 6 feet of space between patient chairs, as well as physical barriers between patient chairs.
After each patient, the dental staff should thoroughly clean patient areas using disinfectants that are effective against the virus that causes COVID-19. This helps reduce the risk of illness being passed to others.
If you're experiencing any type of dental emergency—swelling, uncontrolled bleeding, pain, trauma from an accident, or if you have a dental concern related to an underlying condition (chemotherapy, uncontrolled diabetes, etc.)—it's important to see your dentist as soon as possible.
As for routine procedures, you can also feel free to call up your local dental practice and ask what they'd recommend, depending on the level of the COVID-19 outbreak in your area.
In the meantime, and again, as long as you're not currently facing a dental emergency, remember to keep your teeth and mouth healthy by brushing your teeth and flossing twice a day (yes, even in quarantine).
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC , WHO , and their local public health department as resources.