Visiting a Dental Hygienist

A vital part of any good dental practice is the dental hygienist. It is the role of the dental hygienist to make sure that the oral health of a patient is managed and maintained to the highest standard of care. She instructs and motivates patients to keep up with good oral health and hygiene.
During your dental examination the dentist will make an assessment of the state of your teeth and gums and will consider the most appropriate treatment required from the dental hygienist.

Q: What is a hygienist?

Dental hygienists are specially trained to work with the dentist to give care to patients. They play an important part in dental health care and are mainly concerned with gum health - showing people correct home care and helping to keep the teeth and gums healthy.

The dentist will recommend that you have treatment from the dental hygienist if you have one or more of the following:

  • 1. Red or swollen gums
  • 2. Bleeding gums
  • 3. Plaque and tartar deposits
  • 4. Stained teeth
  • 5. Bad breath
  • 6. Bad taste
  • 7. Gum recession
  • 8. Teeth drifting apart
  • 9. Loose teeth
  • 10. Decayed/infected teeth

These are all signs of gingivitis, periodontal disease (gum disease) or caries (tooth decay). The former particularly is a common problem amongst most adults and it is easily arrested with help from the dental hygienist. However if left untreated it will steadily progress towards tooth loss or necessitate further more expensive treatment, often by a specialist.

Q: What is the hygienist's role in the practice?

The hygienist's main work is to professionally clean the patient's teeth. This is usually called 'scaling and polishing'. However, perhaps their most important role is showing people the best way to keep their teeth free of plaque. Plaque is a sticky coating that forms constantly on your teeth. They also give advice on diet and preventing dental decay. The hygienist will work with your dentist to give you care that is tailored to your needs.

The Hygienist will thoroughly clean all the surfaces of your teeth above and below (if necessary) your gums to remove all soft and hard deposits, which have built up. She will advise you on the most suitable method of brushing and cleaning between your teeth and the equipment you need to carry out adequate oral hygiene and in doing so restore your mouth to a healthy state.

Most patients are treated in one session and advised on what intervals any maintenance visits will be required. However more progressed periodontal disease may require more time and the hygienist will advise after looking in your mouth and assessing the progression of the disease as to the number and frequency of appointments necessary.

The hygienist works closely with you and the dentist to:

1. Thoroughly clean your teeth removing plaque, tartar and stains, creating an environment for your gums to return to normal health.
2. Maintain this environment by teaching good oral hygiene techniques.
3. Give dietary advice to prevent tooth decay.

Q: Can a hygienist do anything else?

Dental hygienists are now able to take dental x-rays. The dentist will use these to help diagnose problems and decide on the possible treatment. If the dentist suggests that you have fissure sealants, they may refer you to the dental hygienist because this is one of the treatments they are trained to carry out.

xray cartoon
Q: Does every practice have a hygienist?

Not all practices have a hygienist. However, more of them now offer this as part of the service to patients, using part-time and full-time hygienists. Hygienists can now work when a dentist is not there, as long as the patient has been seen by the dentist and the treatment is prescribed for the patient.

Q: Why is this treatment important?

Regular professional cleaning, combined with looking after your teeth and gums well at home, will help keep your mouth healthy. A clean and healthy mouth will improve your appearance, help you to keep your teeth and give you fresh breath.

diet illustration
Q: Can a hygienist help prevent dental disease?

This is what the training of the hygienist is all about. Carefully removing the hard deposits of tartar (or 'calculus') that build up on the teeth and teaching you how to prevent them coming back, will go a long way towards slowing the progress of gum disease. By talking to you about your diet, and recommending other preventive measures, the hygienist can help you keep to a routine that will slow down the rate at which your teeth decay. Regular visits and advice will help build your confidence in keeping your mouth healthy.

Q: What other help can be given to adults?

Adults who have a lot of decay can benefit from having fluoride applied. They can also have anti-bacterial gels and solutions applied under the gum to kill the bacteria causing gum disease. Another very important part of the hygienist's work is showing you and telling you how to look after your mouth at home. The hygienist may also suggest giving up smoking, as this will reduce staining. Recent research has also shown that smokers have more gum disease and lose more teeth than non-smokers. Your hygienist will be able to advise you on various ways of giving up smoking.

tooth cowboy illustration
Q: What help is available for children?

Children can benefit from having their teeth polished. The hygienist can also apply fluoride gels and solutions to help prevent decay. They can also help kids get custom to the dental experience by having fun at the dentist. The permanent (or 'adult') back teeth can also benefit from having the biting surfaces sealed. This is done by applying a special plastic coating to the biting surface soon after the teeth come out.

Q: Why doesn't the dentist do this work?

Some dentists will do this type of work. However, many now realise that the hygienist has been specially trained to carry out scaling and polishing and can spend longer with you. They are also expert at teaching you how to look after your teeth and gums. Often the hygienist will spend a number of appointments getting the gums healthy ready for the dentist to restore the teeth with crowns and fillings.

Kids brushing teeth illustration
Q: Will the treatment hurt?

Scaling and polishing is usually pain free. However, if you do have any discomfort the hygienist can use anaesthetic creams, or give you some local anaesthetic. It is important that you let the hygienist know at the time so they can help with your pain.

Q: Is the treatment expensive?

Costs of treatment with a dental hygienist will cost you around R 400 depending on what is being done. It is important to find out the cost before you start, by getting a written quotation.

tooth sealant illustration
Q: What can I do to help the hygienist?

You can do a great deal to help yourself and the hygienist, as you are in control of your mouth between visits to the practice. Your hygienist will have shown you how to remove plaque with a toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. Visit every 4 months and keep the cleans simple - the longer you stay away, the more discomfort you will have. They will also have shown you how to clean between your teeth with interdental brushes, floss or tape or explained a water jet.

There are many oral care products now available including specialist toothpastes, powered toothbrushes, and mouthwashes. Your hygienist will recommend those that are best for you.

We recommend you follow three simple steps to help keep your teeth and gums healthy.

• brush your teeth for two minutes, twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste containing at least 1350ppm (parts per million) of fluoride
• cut down on how often you have sugary foods and drinks
• visit your dentist regularly, as often as they recommend. Cutting down the amount of sugar in your diet, and the number of times that you eat during the day, can help to reduce decay. Your hygienist can help you by looking at your decay problem and your diet, and by making some recommendations for you to consider. Chewing sugar-free gum for 10 minutes after meals with xylotol can also help to prevent tooth decay. Chewing gum makes your mouth produce more saliva, which in turn cancels out the acid produced in your mouth after drinking and eating.

A visit to the Oral Hygienist is an investment in the future health and longevity of your teeth. With regular visits to the Oral Hygienist not only will your dental health improve (resulting in less fillings and treatments etc.) but in the long run by cutting down on your dental disease and tooth loss you will be saving money on your dental bills.

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