- Nearly half of adults in the United States delayed dental care at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Safety measures like pre-screening surveys, masking, and capacity limits are being used to control the spread of infection and protect staff and patients.
According to research from the RAND Corporation, nearly half of adults in the United States reported delaying dental care because of the pandemic in May and June of 2020.
Weekly visits to U.S. dentists’ offices also declined dramatically in March through August of 2020, averaging 33% lower than in 2019, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association.
In 2020, some patients avoided the dentist for the same reason they avoided other public places: fear of contracting COVID. This includes patients like Su Yang. He told Verywell he couldn’t go to the dentist even if he wanted to in early 2020, because he lost his job and his health insurance.
“I was moving from California to Texas because I was trying to get a new job, but there was a big hiring freeze in the company I was planning to go to. Because of that, I lost my job and my dental coverage,” Yang said.
But by the time Yang started a new job and had full dental coverage in October 2020, concerns of contracting and transmitting COVID-19 kept him away from a checkup before vaccines were available.
The national—and global—decline in dental visits wasn’t just because of choices made by patients. By August 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that dental care be restricted to nonessential status except for sudden or emergency issues of pain and dysfunction.
Checkups Were Hit the Hardest
A study published in JDR Clinical & Translational Research found that among adults who delayed dental care during the pandemic, 74.7% of adults reported delaying a checkup.
How COVID Impacted Oral Hygiene
While they may have been performing fewer routine cleanings during 2020, dentists were dealing with other issues.
“Many patients chose to forgo their regular cleanings and routine checkups, thinking doing so would minimize their exposure to COVID-19,” Tim Donley, DDS, MSD, an expert in the treatment of gum disease and dental implants, told Verywell. “Patients with urgent requests, including fillings, crowns, and root canals, kept their appointments and were more likely to come to the office.”
In addition, Donley said COVID-related changes introduced a new set of dental concerns. For example, he observed an increase in stress-related conditions like teeth grinding, chipped teeth, and chronic jaw pain. Neglected hygiene and poor diets contributed to an uptick in cavities and gum disease, too.
Dentists Were Already Primed to Enhance Safety Protocols
Professionals in general dentistry were using personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gloves, and gowns for many years before the pandemic started.
Matthew Messina, DDS, clinic director at Ohio State Upper Arlington Dentistry and assistant clinical professor at the The Ohio State University College of Dentistry’s Department of Restorative and Prosthetic Dentistry, told Verywell that the dental profession was uniquely prepared to handle something like the pandemic. He said many dentists only needed to make a few modifications, like asking patients to use an oral rinse ahead of a cleaning, requiring social distancing in offices, and offering telehealth appointments for evaluations.
“Dentists have been dealing with universal precautions, high level of disinfection, barrier techniques, and PPE long before it was cool,” he said.
Patients Are Getting Back on Track
A March 2022 poll from the American Dental Association showed that dental practices have been getting busier since January. In March, office schedules were 88% full, compared to 83% full in February and 77% full in January.
Su said he’s in the process of looking for a new dentist in his area.
“Now that the vaccine and boosters are available, I’ve been feeling much more comfortable,” he said.
Dentists know a little incentive can’t hurt. Donley said that many offices are offering free or discounted whitening procedures as a way to encourage patients to get back in the habit of regular visits.
What This Means For You
Dental and oral health care helps prevent gum disease, cavities, and toothaches. It also benefits your overall health. If you put off regular checkups during the pandemic, it’s time to call your dentist’s office for an appointment.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.