Dental checkups for children and adults

Infants and preschoolers

By the time your child is 6 months old, your doctor should assess the likelihood of your child having future dental problems. This may include a dental exam of the mother and her dental history, because the condition of her teeth can often predict possible problems with her child's teeth. If the doctor thinks your child will have dental problems, be sure your child sees a dentist by his or her first birthday or 6 months after the first primary teeth appear, whichever comes first. After your first visit, schedule regular visits every 6 months or as your dentist recommends.

Experts recommend that your child's dental care start at 12 months of age. Babies with dental problems caused by injury, disease, or a developmental problem should be seen by a children's (pediatric) dentist right away. If these dental problems are not limited to the surfaces of the teeth, your baby should also be seen by a children's doctor (pediatrician) or your family doctor.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that doctors prescribe fluoride to preschool children older than 6 months of age whose primary water source lacks enough fluoride.1

For more information, see the topics Basic Dental Care, Mouth and Dental Injuries, and Mouth Problems, Noninjury.

Adults, teens, and school-age children

See your dentist once or twice a year. Your dentist will examine your teeth and gums for signs of tooth decay, gum disease, and other health problems.

  • Your dental hygienist will begin to clean your teeth by scraping hard mineral buildup (tartar) off your teeth with a small metal tool. Then the hygienist will floss your teeth, use a polishing compound, and apply fluoride. Cleanings usually aren't painful.
  • Sometimes your dentist will want to take X-rays. The X-rays take only a few minutes.
    • Your dentist or technician will have you put on a heavy apron to shield your body from X-rays. Everyone else in the room will either wear a protective apron or step behind a protective shield.
    • Your dentist or technician will have you bite down on a small piece of plastic. This will help align your teeth properly for the machine. Your dentist or technician will repeat this process several times to get pictures of all your teeth.
  • If needed, your dentist will put a sealant on the chewing surface of your back teeth to help prevent cavities. Sealants keep food and bacteria from getting stuck in the rough chewing surfaces or grooves of your teeth, and they protect your teeth from plaque.
  • If you are prone to infections, you may need to take antibiotics before you have any dental work. This includes people who:
    • Have heart valve problems, which put you at risk for endocarditis.
    • Have an impaired immune system.
    • Had recent major surgeries or have man-made body parts, such as an artificial hip or heart valve.
  • Your dentist or hygienist may ask you about the foods you eat. What you eat and whether you get enough vitamins and minerals can affect your dental health.
  • If you have active tooth decay or gum disease, your dentist will talk to you about changing your brushing or flossing habits. In severe cases, he or she may recommend antibiotics or other dental treatments. If your teeth and gums appear to be healthy, your dentist will probably recommend that you continue your usual brushing and flossing routine.

After reviewing all of the research, the USPSTF has not recommended for or against routine screening of adults for oral cancer.2

For more information, see the topics Basic Dental Care, Tooth Decay, and Oral Cancer.

Citations

  1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2004). Prevention of dental caries in preschool children. Available online: http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/uspstf/uspsdnch.htm.
  2. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2004). Screening for oral cancer. Available online: http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/uspstf/uspsoral.htm.

Last Updated: August 28, 2009

Author: Debby Golonka, MPH

Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine

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