The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted our world, ushering in an age of Work from Home, vaccination protocols, social distancing, and countless ways in our daily lives, but what if I told you that your dental health was also at risk during the pandemic!
In 2020, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) put out a statement, “Populations at higher risk for many chronic diseases are similar to those at higher risk for developing oral diseases.” This increased risk alongside the nationwide closures of many dental practices made for an incredibly dangerous combination that left many Americans' oral health at the wayside. Regular dental cleanings and hygiene checkups are recommended every six months. These compounding factors can explain why people’s oral health has declined, with some individuals claiming they have not been to the dentist in three years due to the pandemic.
Transmissibility of COVID-19 was at the start of the pandemic that kept people from wanting to attend any non-essential medical exams, and with oral health, the idea of having someone within such close proximity to your open mouth was a clear violation of COVID-19 safety protocol. As these mandates and procedures began to loosen, people were still hesitant to book an appointment with a dentist as cases still flared up from time to time.
Another factor that could be at play is the high out-of-pocket dental costs. At the start of the pandemic, a 2020 report by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics stated, “Of the 16.9 million people unemployed in July, 9.6 million (57 percent) were unable to work because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic.” With a large portion of the population unemployed, most Americans use their employer health benefits plans to cover dental costs. If they are no longer employed, they can opt for COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. COBRA allows for the individual to have the ability to continue to pay for their insurance plan, but this is usually more expensive since you are covering the entire cost of insurance.
The Surgeon General of the United States mentioned that oral health is essential to overall health and well-being, and this came from the report done on oral health in 2000. The second-ever report on oral health is in the works now, and it will be interesting to see if the effects of the pandemic are also included in this report. It speaks volumes that there have only ever been two reports on oral health by the Surgeon General and could demonstrate the importance of oral health for all Americans.
Dental practices have indicated that they have seen decreased visits due to the pandemic. One study by Meyers and Danesh (2021) stated, “During the pandemic, the quarterly fluoride utilization rate significantly decreased at dental visits.” The long-term effects of forgone dental health maintenance range from tooth decay to oral infections, and worse if left untreated. The British Dental Journal found a link between poor oral hygiene and hyper-inflammation, leading to a higher risk of more severe infection from COVID-19. Their findings urged United Kingdom residents and the world to reinvest in their oral health and schedule an appointment with their dentist.
There is no need to panic because there are still things you can do to ensure that your oral health is not in jeopardy. Make sure to call your dentist's office and set up an appointment, and there are options for those that still do not feel comfortable back in dental offices. Telemedicine has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic for both physical health and oral health. Individuals can opt for a virtual call with their dentist to perform a supervised fluoride treatment and answer questions when in-person visits are not ideal.
We cannot forget about our teeth as we think about getting back to full health. In 2020, the CDC stated, “The mouth is indispensable to eating, speaking, smiling, and quality of life. The most prevalent oral conditions are dental cavities and periodontal diseases, and they are largely preventable.”
As we continue to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can all help our overall health and well-being by flossing and brushing twice a day and making sure the next time you see the dentist, they are captivated by your gorgeous smile!
Written by: Danny Vogwill, Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, University of Illinois UIUC