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Dental Exams


Regularly scheduled dental exams and cleanings are an important part of your overall health care routine. Oral exams allow your dentist to evaluate your mouth for problems you may not know about, such as tooth decay, gingivitis, periodontal disease, or oral cancer. They may also help identify symptoms in your body such as heart disease, sinus problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, or some forms of cancer.

Your physician will not generally conduct an oral exam. Only your dentist does that. Visiting the dentist regularly is essential to diagnose problems in your mouth. Did you know that many systemic diseases exhibit oral symptoms? Your dentist may help detect these conditions early so you can increase your chances for successful treatment.

Regular dental exams for children are also important. Starting your child on a life-long approach to good oral hygiene from an early age helps them:

  • Understand the importance of oral health.
  • Reinforce good oral hygiene habits.
  • Diminish long-term anxiety about going to the dentist.

Types of dental exams

  • A periodic dental exam is conducted during a regular check-up (typically every six months).
  • A comprehensive dental exam is done at the first visit to a new dental office. This establishes a baseline of your oral and general health for future check-ups. They may also be conducted if you have not seen your dentist for several years.
  • A limited dental exam is also referred to as a problem-focused oral evaluation. It is performed when you have a specific issue or emergency.
  • Periodontal exams are for patients who have risk factors or have been diagnosed with periodontal disease. Your dentist will look for deep gum pockets, tartar below the gumline, infections, and bone loss around the teeth.

How often should you get dental exams?

The frequency at which you get dental exams depends on your risk factors. You should discuss this with your dentist. It is important to stick to your recommended schedule, as dental exams are important for many reasons.

The following steps are typical of dental exams for school-aged children through adulthood. Infants and toddlers may have different experiences based on their specific needs or comfort level with an appointment.

Before the procedure

  • Who will treat you? Commonly you will be seen by two professionals, a dental hygienist and a dentist. Dental assistants may also be involved in your care. They typically gather and record health information and take X-ray images.
    • Your hygienist will conduct an initial exam of your teeth and gums. They will document any changes in your oral health and evaluate any risk factors for disease. They will take X-ray images if necessary and then clean your teeth. They will also provide advice on oral hygiene and answer any questions you might have.
    • After your cleaning, your dentist will examine your teeth and gums for signs of other oral and general health problems.
  • Review your health status: You will share information to ensure that your dentist and their staff can provide safe and effective treatment and provide appropriate post-care guidance. Get important information here: Health history and current health status.
  • Anti-anxiety medication: Let your dentist or hygienist know if you have any fears about being at the dentist or receiving dental care. Dental treatment options have changed significantly from years ago, and so have anxiety and pain management strategies. If your anxiety is severe, your dentist may recommend sedation.
  • X-ray images: If X-ray images are required, they are typically taken at this time. X-ray images are not always part of a dental exam but play an important role in establishing a baseline and evaluating changes over time in your oral health.

During the procedure

  • Visual examination:
    • Soft tissue exam: The soft tissues of your mouth include the tongue, inside of the lips and cheeks, the floor and roof of your mouth, and the back of your throat and tonsil area. Your dentist will examine these areas for spots, lesions, cuts, growths, or swelling, which may indicate a problem that requires additional evaluation.
    • External oral cancer exam: Your dentist or hygienist will look for signs of oral cancer. They will feel the area under your jaw and the sides of your neck for bumps or swelling of your lymph nodes and other tissues.
    • Gum tissue: You will be examined for signs of periodontal disease. Your hygienist or dentist may use a probe to measure the pocket depth between your teeth and gums. If there are signs of periodontal disease, your dentist may refer you to a periodontist for additional treatment.
    • Tooth exam: Signs of plaque and tooth decay are looked for on the surfaces of every tooth. Your dentist or hygienist will probe your teeth with an instrument to look for cavities. Your dentist will also check for problems with restorations such as fillings, bridges, dentures, crowns, implants, or orthodontic appliances.

After the procedure

Once your exam is complete, any findings will be recorded in your oral health record. Exams may be followed by a professional tooth cleaning and polishing. Your dentist will then come in to review the hygienist's findings. They will typically conduct a second visual exam and examine the cleaning. They will also diagnose any problems and assess your need for fluoride or other appropriate medications. If any problems are detected during your exam, your dentist may also:

  • Suggest additional diagnostic tests.
  • Advise you on necessary treatments.
  • Suggest changes to your oral hygiene habits.
  • Discuss any next steps that may be needed, including the possibility of a consultation with your physician.

Additional services

Your dentist may suggest additional services based on your exam:

There are no specific risks or concerns with any type of dental exam. However, sensitivity to gum probing and exploration of individual teeth is possible. Speak to your dentist if you have anxiety about dental office visits. Also, ask questions about your need for X-ray images.

There is no substitute for an oral exam by a dentist. However, teledentistry has become an effective method if there is an emergency or if you cannot get to a dental office quickly. Ask your dental office if they offer teledentistry services. Many offices provide this service through the internet or phone or via email or text communication.

Dental exams should be an important part of your oral health habits throughout your lifetime. Avoiding or delaying exams allows for a greater build-up of plaque and tartar and increases the risk of unidentified problems. These issues can often lead to more extensive and costly procedures in the future.

  • How often should I get a dental exam? How often should my children get exams?
  • Besides my teeth and gums, what other things do you examine in my mouth?
  • Are there signs of oral cancer or other potential problems that I can look for myself?
  • Are these counseling discussions a normal part of my exam, or will you charge extra for them?
  • What things can I do to improve my oral health?
  • Does your office provide teledentistry services? If so, can I get that information, including how much it costs?
  • Author: Symbyos staff, Fluent staff
  • Medical review: Thomas J. Greany DDS, 12/24/2020
  • Last updated: 5/27/2021