In September, the American Dental Association released the results of a poll wherein over half of the dentists surveyed reported seeing increases in "stress-related oral health conditions" in patients since the beginning of the pandemic. Bruxism (teeth grinding), chipped and cracked teeth, and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) symptoms were all on the rise.
Jeri Bullock, DDS, associate dean for clinical affairs of University of Utah's School of Dentistry, says that the most common thing she's seen recently is an increase in periodontal disease (aka gum disease) for patients who are just now returning to the dentist.
"That calculus buildup on the teeth—everybody's buildup—is significantly more than what they usually come in with because it's now been a year instead of six months," she tells HelloGiggles, referring to the gap between appointments.
She also notes more staining and halitosis. The latter can be partially attributed to the fact that people are less likely to sip water throughout the day because of masks, which would normally help rinse bacteria out of the mouth. Multiple people told Bullock that they realized it was time to return to the dentist when they noticed that their gums were bleeding. Gum inflammation can come from a change in habit, be it not flossing or brushing as often.
So if you're experiencing any of these dental problems, don't fret. Dentists explain what you can do now for your teeth health, from quick fixes to long-term solutions.
Quick fixes for dental problems:
"I think we've all been much more stressed out than we have in the past—and stress really induces that clenching and grinding factor," Bullock says.
Since stress reduction isn't always possible, Bullock recommends meditating or taking a warm shower before bed. Additionally, people can try a hot pad or anti-inflammatory medication before bed to help relax the muscles. She also suggests lightly massaging the muscles of the cheeks and the area by the ears.
However, if you're grinding your teeth like never before, Joseph E. Gambacorta, DDS, associate dean for clinical affairs of University at Buffalo's School of Dental Medicine, says that a boil and bite mouthguard can serve as a short-term solution ahead of a dental appointment, especially if you think you need to get diagnosed and treated.
"Basically what you're trying to create is a barrier so that the teeth aren't touching each other," Gambacorta explains. "So putting something in the mouth, like an athletic mouthguard, will act as a barrier and reduce the friction if someone is grinding their teeth at night or someone's clenching their teeth during stressful moments during the day."
As people began working from home, Bullock notes that most people have picked up snacking and drinking habits, like sugary coffee and energy beverages, which can contribute to cavities. If this is the case for you, try to reduce eating sugary snacks until you're able to make your next dental appointment.
Is it safe to go to the dentist during COVID-19?
The best thing you can do to get your oral health back on track is make an appointment with a dentist, but some people have been putting off their routine appointments. Bullock saw a decrease in the number of patients coming in since the beginning of the pandemic.
"A lot of people's concerns are being safe," Bullock says. "Are they going to spread something to us or are we going to spread something to them because dentistry is something that [patients] don't have to have a mask on for. So, I would say a lot of people decided to put a pause on that part of their healthcare."
Gambacorta notes that dental offices are some of the safest places right now, because of the protective protocols in place, which include dentists and staff wearing PPE.
"The dental office is extremely safe, so patients who have been putting off treatment should get back to the dental office and get their work done," Gambacorta says. "Obviously, you still have a certain percentage of the population that's very worried about what's going on, which is understandable, especially if they have underlying health conditions. But the research clearly indicates, basically, that the dental office is safe."
Gambacorta also cites further precautions that some dental offices are taking, including advanced air filtration, fewer patients in the office, expanding hours, and conducting coronavirus (COVID-19) screenings ahead of appointments.
Both Bullock and Gambacorta say that the average patient should plan to see the dentist every six months. Cases vary, however, and some people need to get a checkup more often. Dental issues left unaddressed can turn into more advanced issues. Carious lesions (cavities) in the teeth often grow over time, which can lead to more extensive procedures down the line, like a root canal, tooth extraction, or crown.
"Delaying treatment would only allow teeth that are in poor health to continue to degrade and continue to have problems," Gambacorta says.
"If you have a question, reach out to your dental provider; they'd be more than happy to speak with you," he says. "Because obviously, as a profession, we would like to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable coming into our environment."