When you were a child, chances are your dentist gave your teeth a quick ‘clean and polish’ at the end of an appointment. Dental hygienists were few and far between. Not any more. Since 1943, the profession has grown to a highly qualified cadre of 6,000 individuals whose job is not just to make sure you have sparkling teeth but to help keep your whole mouth healthy.
‘The dental hygienist is a vital member of the dental team, an expert in periodontal care (care of the gums) who can help prevent problems arising,’ says Julie Rosse, president elect of the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy. And as we are keeping our teeth for longer, a whole new area of dentistry has opened up known as gerodontology, which is well within their field of expertise.
What can dental hygienists do?
Dental hygiene is about much more than just cleaning your teeth. The hygienist can also monitor gum disease and plaque and give personalised advice on brushing and cleaning between your teeth, as well as specific help: for example, on quitting smoking (smoking increases risk of gum disease and tooth loss), on diet and nutrition, and on using fluoride agents to strengthen teeth. They can advise on gadgets from the latest power toothbrushes to water-flossing devices that can make it easier to keep teeth and gums healthy. If you have more extensive gum disease, the hygienist may carry out deep scaling (root surface debridement). Some are trained to do tooth whitening, fissure sealing, placing pre-formed crowns, applying special antimicrobial rinses and paint-on agents to help control gum disease, and taking X-rays.
As more of us keep our teeth well into later life we quite literally become ‘long in the tooth’ due to gum recession, which exposes the root surfaces, causing teeth to become more sensitive and increasing risk of decay. Regular visits to the hygienist can help you to maintain the root surface in a healthy condition and treat or prevent decay and sensitivity. ‘It should be a positive experience that gives you time to devote to your individual oral healthcare,’ says Julie.
How often should I go to the dental hygienist?
Your dentist or dental hygienist will advise, depending on the state of your oral health. Even if you have full dentures, it is important to visit. Abnormalities, such as signs of mouth cancer, can be picked up at an early stage and dental hygienists are as vigilant as dentists when examining a patient’s mouth.
How much does it cost?
A simple scale and polish on the NHS is £18.80. More in-depth scaling is likely to set you back £51.30. Private treatment varies, but can start from £45 for half an hour. Hygienists must have done an approved General Dental Council (gdc-uk.org) course and must be registered to practise.
Did you know?
The Baby Boomer generation is known as the ‘heavy metal brigade’ as we have mouths full of metal (amalgam) fillings.