While many people are likely aware of the most common risk factors associated with complications from COVID-19, including diabetes or high blood pressure, a surprising connection has emerged with dental health. In fact, a recent study found that people with gum disease who become infected with COVID-19 are at increased risk of poor outcomes, including a greater chance of admission to the intensive care unit.
Gum disease – also known as periodontal disease – is generally preventable through proper brushing, flossing and routine dental cleanings. Unfortunately, nearly 50% of Americans 30 or older having some form of gum disease, with the prevalence of this condition increasing by age. More broadly, good oral health is a first line of defense to help the body protect itself from infections, systemic inflammation and various types of diseases.
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While nearly everyone knows to brush during the morning and at night and to floss daily, there are numerous other ways to help maintain or improve your oral health amid COVID-19 and for years to come. Here are some strategies to consider:
Upgrade Your Toothbrush and Technique. If you are still using a manual toothbrush, now’s the time to think about an upgrade. Electric toothbrushes offer several advantages over manual ones, with some synching to an app to help people develop better oral health habits by providing personalized feedback, including related to brush duration, tooth/gum coverage and intensity. Most importantly, people should brush for a full two minutes, use short, gentle strokes, and keep the head at a 45-degree angle toward the gums. To help make electric toothbrushes more affordable, some dental plans are starting to offer discounts on certain smart brushes and enabling members to earn incentives for using them.
Focus on Gum Health. While people often think about good dental health as preventing cavities and creating a white smile, maintaining or improving gum health is of equal importance. That’s because healthy gums can prevent gingivitis and eventually periodontal disease, which may cause tooth loss and contribute to an array of other health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and dementia. In addition to daily flossing, people may also use a water flosser, which shoots a stream of water between the teeth and can help reduce bacteria below the gum line. It’s also important to avoid tobacco, as smokers are at twice the risk of gum disease as non-smokers, and limit alcohol use, which has been linked to various oral health issues.
Evaluate the Need for a Nightguard. In part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 70% of dentists surveyed reported an increase of patients experiencing teeth grinding and clenching, conditions often associated with stress. Some people may do this during sleep and be unaware of the issue. Over time, this condition – known as bruxism – may contribute to damaged teeth, gum recession and, ultimately, tooth loss. To help avoid this, a dentist can identify signs of this condition and create a custom nightguard to reduce night-time grinding.
Tap into Virtual Dental Care. Virtual care has become an important option for accessing health care amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including for dentistry. Some dentists and dental plans are making available telephone and video consultations, which offer people a starting point for advice and guidance to help select (if needed) an appropriate setting for in-person care. Dental care ranks among the most frequently avoidable emergency room visits, with tele-dentistry providing a resource that may help people make more informed decisions about where to go for in-person care, such as their own dentist, another available local dentist or a primary care physician*.
Schedule Regular Cleanings. Even if you are practicing an impeccable at-home oral care routine, regular dental cleanings are also crucial, ideally every six months. That’s because consistently visiting the dentist can help remove plaque that tends to build up over time, while also helping detect potential issues and recommending treatments. While it is always important to check state and local guides related to the spread of COVID-19, the American Dental Association recommends people continue routine oral health care, including dental checkups, cleanings and preventive care. To help with that, many dental plans include up to two annual cleanings with no cost sharing.
By considering these tips, you may help maintain or improve your oral health, while contributing to your overall well-being too.
*Not all dental services are eligible for virtual dental care.
Dr. Leonard Weiss is Chief Dental Officer at UnitedHealthcare.