The situation regarding COVID-19 (coronavirus) is changing by the day, if not the hour, and it can be hard to keep up with the current advice from the government. Amid the current restrictions, you might be wondering if it’s still safe to visit the dentist while coronavirus is active in the community.
You may think of dental clinics as generally clean and hygienic, but they also involve close face-to-face contact, meaning that dentists and hygienists have some of the riskiest jobs going at a time like this.
Here, Dentaly.org summarises the current advice to dentists and patients so you can decide what to do if you have an upcoming dental appointment or need urgent dental care.
Note: An update on the situation as of 23rd June is available here and a further update from 6th November here.
Table of contents
Update from 23rd March
In his address to the British public on 23rd March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people “you must stay at home”. In a bid to stop the spread of the virus, people are now only allowed to leave their homes for “very limited purposes”, one of which is “any medical need”.
This means that people may still visit the dentist in some cases, but practices will carefully screen patients to assess how urgent their treatment is and whether there is any risk of them carrying the virus.
To complicate matters, dentists have been advised to cease aerosol generating procedures (AGPs). These include things like high-speed drilling for fillings and using an ultrasonic scaling tool during a scale and polish. The problem with these procedures is that they send saliva particles into the air and increase the risk of contamination for dental staff and other patients.
Because the majority of urgent cases require an AGP, local governments are setting up dedicated emergency care facilities where dentists have the necessary protection to provide urgent care involving AGPs.
The British Orthodontic Society has also released a statement, advising that “no orthodontic patient should attend any clinic at this time. In an extreme emergency, the patient should contact the practice or unit by phone and discuss ways of resolving their problem at home.”
What this means for patients
If you don't need urgent care, stay at home. Routine checkups, hygiene appointments, and any treatment not classed as urgent will be postponed.
What if I need urgent dental care?
Postponing a dental checkup or hygiene appointment may not be a big deal, but what if you’re in pain and need urgent attention?
If you meet all of the following criteria then you should call your usual dental practice for advice:
- You are not displaying any coronavirus symptoms
- Nobody in your household is displaying symptoms
- You have not been in close contact with anybody confirmed to have coronavirus
The staff will ask you some screening questions to establish how urgent your treatment need is and whether there is any risk of you carrying the virus. If they decide that you do need urgent dental care, in some limited cases they may see you in the dental practice and issue painkillers and antibiotics. If you need treatment that will involve aerosol generating procedures (AGPs) then it's more likely you will be referred to an emergency dental care facility.
If you do not meet one or more of the criteria listed above (i.e. you are showing symptoms or have been in contact with someone else who is) then you should call NHS 111. They will provide telephone triage and advise you on what to do if you need urgent treatment.
You will be referred to your local health authority who will arrange treatment at a dedicated dental care centre. This is a facility which is properly equipped to keep dentists and other staff protected while they treat patients.
Read about ways to handle tooth pain at home, including natural remedies, while you wait for your appointment.
If you are struggling to get in touch with a dentist or you just want advice about your symptoms, you can chat to a dentist online using JustAnswer. This service is based in the US, so please note that they won't be able to answer specific questions about visiting a dentist in the UK during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, these dentists are fully qualified to answer questions about your dental problem and advise whether you should seek emergency treatment.
You might also benefit from a DIY temporary tooth filling kit, which can be used to replace lost fillings, fix loose crowns and repair broken teeth. Note that these kits should only be used as a temporary measure while you wait to see a dentist.
What to expect if you do visit the dentist
If you do visit a dental clinic, you should follow any directions given to you. Precautions may include:
- Signs displayed at the entrance advising of any special requirements the practice/clinic has decided to put in place
- Extra cleaning measures between patients, e.g. wiping down door handles and flat surfaces
- Patients asked to use hand sanitizer
- Patients asked to use antibacterial mouthwash
Staff members will follow the government’s advice to self-isolate if they develop a continuous cough or a fever. However, dental practices are not being advised to close if it’s discovered that a staff member or patient has coronavirus. Each case will be assessed by the relevant Health Protection Team and the practice will only be closed if deemed necessary.
However, as the spread of COVID-19 intensifies, more and more practices may find themselves forced to close due to staff shortages.
Germs exist everywhere in the world around us. They even enter our homes. But healthcare workers are actively following certain safety guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep patients protected. Dentists and those working with them wash hands, sterilise tools, wear protective gear and more to keep patients protected. Some extra precautions that you can expect to see when you visit the dentist now include:
- More protective gear including face shields, face masks, and surgical robes.
- Spaced out appointments.
- Symptom screening (fever checks, questionnaires) before office entry.
- Face masks for patients and staff.
- A limited number of people allowed to enter for a visit at a time.
- A requirement to wait outside until it is your turn.
- Spaced out treatment chairs.
- Non-occupied waiting rooms and no magazines, toys, or chairs.
- The addition of a rubber dam (thin sheet of latex that creates a barrier between the working field and the rest of the mouth) for patients during treatment.
All of these steps help us provide essential services, and vital preventive dentistry, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Kevin Varley, Stonebrook Family Dentistry
Aside from staying at home, here is the general advice for preventing the spread of COVID-19:
- Wash your hands frequently for 20 seconds each time, or use hand sanitizer
- Cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue, discard it immediately, and wash your hands
- Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as door handles and light switches
For the latest updates on how coronavirus is affecting the dental industry, we recommend you visit this page from the BDA.
Dentistry.co.uk: ‘Everyone’s struggling’: dental industry responds to latest coronavirus advice. Consulted 18th March 2020.
Dentistry.co.uk: Everything dental professionals need to know about coronavirus. Consulted 18th March 2020.
Dentistry.co.uk: UK’s CDOs offer coronavirus advice for dental practices. Consulted 18th March 2020.
Public Health England: Guidance on social distancing for everyone in the UK and protecting older people and vulnerable adults. Consulted 18th March 2020.
British Dental Association: Coronavirus: Your FAQs. Consulted 18th March 2020.