Going to the dentist tops the list of “things you’ll do eventually.” It’s right up there with changing your oil, vacuuming under the bed, and cleaning the expired spinach out of the back of your fridge. These are all things you need to do, but it’s so much easier to put them off.
So what happens if you don’t go to the dentist for a long period of time? Typically, dentists recommend getting a cleaning and an overall evaluation about twice a year to remove plaque and tartar, check for cavities, etc., Lynn Gargano, D.D.S.—a board-certified pediatric dentist and director of the dental school Family Health Centers at NYU Langone—tells HelloGiggles.
If going twice a year isn’t possible, affordable, or something you want to do—especially during the pandemic—there are ways to stay healthier between visits. (Though you should still try to go regularly.) “Individuals can maintain their oral health by limiting sugar intake, drinking fluoridated or regular water (especially after eating), brushing twice daily, and flossing once daily,” Gargano says.
The health of your mouth is largely up to you, but let’s look at what might happen if you put off going to the dentist for long periods of time.
Skipping the dentist for one year
Okay, so let’s say it’s coming up on a year since you last went to the dentist. What might be going on with your mouth?
As Gargano says, you could be developing new cavities, small cavities could be progressing in size, and/or you could be in the beginning stages of periodontal disease (aka gum disease), which leads to gingivitis. This will most likely occur if you're eating candy on a regular basis or don't brush your teeth often. “Both cavities and gingivitis can cause bad breath,” she says, so take it as a sign if brushing or chewing gum no longer does the trick.
Skipping the dentist for two years
Now let’s say it’s been two years. At this point, your dental cavities might be getting to the point of needing more than just a filling. “Patients can begin to have tooth sensitivity and pain, possibly needing a root canal and crown to save the tooth,” Gargano says. This is because the tooth is exposed to acid, bacteria, and sugars on a regular basis, and over time it can make the decay of the tooth even worse without regular cleaning.
That’s not only painful but a lot more expensive to fix than a simple filling. “As far as periodontal disease,” she says, “it will progress, and bone loss can start (turning into periodontitis)," which can damage the soft tissue and, eventually, destroy the bone.
Skipping the dentist for five years
You might not think you’d wait five years between dentist visits, but it really is so easy to let half a decade slip by without so much as a cleaning. And that’s really not a great idea.
“In five years, what was a small cavity can progress to either needing a root canal or the tooth can potentially become non-restorable and need to be extracted,” Gargano says. “Additionally, as bone loss progresses, the disease process can also lead to tooth loss.”
Stopping by your dentist for those twice yearly evaluations means catching cavities early and doing something about them before they get to this point.
Skipping the dentist for ten years
Now let’s talk ten years, a whole decade since you last kicked back in a dentist’s chair and let them poke around your mouth. At that point, dental decay and periodontal disease might be happening on multiple teeth.
Also, not many people know that poor oral health actually impacts the rest of your body. As Gargano says, “These diseases are believed to increase the oral bacteria that can be harmful to heart function, increasing chances of heart disease and stroke.”
All the more reason to find a way to go in for those frequent cleanings, X-rays, and other evaluations. But remember: While this might be the timeline for some patients, if you brush your teeth on the regular and floss, you'll most likely be able to minimize the mentioned teeth issues above.