Why COVID-19 is proving to be bad for our teeth
From social distancing to unstructured days, the pandemic has led to a deterioration of dental health as people cut costs and tuck into sugary treats at home.
Since lockdown, the number of adults with untreated and potentially painful tooth decay has increased from 25 per cent to more than 32 per cent, according to the Australian Dental Association's (ADA) annual Oral Health Tracker.
It also found less than half of adults had visited a dentist in the past 12 months and only 53 per cent were brushing their teeth twice a day.
While stark white walls, glaring lights and steel instruments can turn people into quivering heaps, many dental practices are determined to remain open and provide their essential service during lockdown.
The ADA has made a series of recommendations, including advising patients to wear a face mask when they come in, having them wait outside or in their car until the dentist is ready to see them and placing hand sanitiser throughout the office.
Dentists are wearing protective equipment and taking other steps to reassure patients it's safe to get back in the chair.
Dr Rachel Mascord is among many dentists seeing fewer patients so they have more time to disinfect rooms between visits.
She says dental procedures are challenging because many involve the use of high-pressure sprays of water and air that could disperse virus-containing aerosols from a patient into the treatment room.
"I use a thin rubber sheet when treating teeth to reduce risk of creating aerosol," she says. "We wear gowns, shoe and hair covers and face-shields to protect ourselves and screen our patients to determine if they have been exposed to the virus."
Dr Mascord says maintaining good dental hygiene is crucial during lockdown.
"Reduce sugar in all of its forms - fruit, lollies and acidic drinks are the obvious culprits," she says.
"Stock up on healthy snacks like raw vegetables, nuts and hummus, and drink water and herbal teas like peppermint when the days are cold."
Many young Australians with excruciating tooth pain have tried to treat themselves with over-the-counter remedies, via friends' advice or watching YouTube.
Bronwen Fielding-Trips, 26, used an emery board to file down the bumps on her teeth.
"Spending money on expensive dentist visits just wasn't a priority of mine," she says. "I even purchased a cheap teeth whitening kit on eBay to attempt at-home whitening.
"I realise damaging the enamel of my teeth is not worth it. And I was lucky to not have permanent damage."
For Shane Pollard, 38, a chilly camping experience caused one of his front teeth to become loose. He then pulled it out and waited until he returned home to have an artificial tooth installed.
"It had been so cold that I didn't feel any pain afterwards," he said.
For those worried about oral health, there is now access to digital health services such as :DSmile Care which gives free advice from qualified dentists.
"It's important to remember that poor dental health is almost entirely preventable," :DSmile Care founder Dr Joseph Badr says.
"Research shows two visits to the dentist a year is enough to prevent tooth decay, and that attending to dental problems early will prevent more painful and costly issues in the long term."
ADA spokesperson Dr Mikaela Chinotti says for this year's Dental Health Week (which runs this week): "We're asking Australians to make their oral health a priority even during the pandemic.
"This includes visiting the dentist, becoming sugar savvy by understanding ways to reduce free sugar intake or making a conscious effort to brush using fluoride toothpaste twice a day in a bid to reverse the negative trends."
Originally published as How the pandemic is affecting your oral health