Mayo Clinic Health Library

Dental exam

Updated: 02-18-2012

Definition

Regular dental exams are an important part of preventive health care. During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will clean your teeth and identify gum inflammation or bone loss. The dentist or hygienist will evaluate your risk of developing tooth decay and other oral health problems, as well as check your face, neck and mouth for abnormalities. A dental exam might also include dental X-rays or other diagnostic procedures.

During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will likely discuss your diet and oral hygiene habits and might demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques. Other topics for discussion during a dental exam might include:

  • Any medications you're taking
  • Use of tobacco products
  • Consequences of tooth loss
  • Benefits of crowns, fixed bridges or dental implants
  • Use of dentures
  • Cosmetic procedures

A dental exam also gives you the opportunity to ask questions about oral health.

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Why it's done

Regular dental exams help protect your oral health and general well-being. A dental exam gives your dentist a chance to provide tips on caring for your teeth and to detect any problems early — when they're most treatable.

When to have a dental exam
The American Dental Hygienists' Association recommends that adults schedule dental exams every six months — or according to their dentists' or hygienists' advice. Even if you no longer have your natural teeth, it's important to consult your dentist for regular dental exams to maintain your oral health and the usefulness of your replacement teeth.

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How you prepare

If you're scheduling your first adult dental exam or you're looking for a new dentist, consider asking friends, loved ones, neighbors, co-workers or your doctor for a recommendation. Consider whether the dentist has a convenient location and whether he or she participates in your health plan. Before you're treated, make sure you understand the fees and payment options.

If you're feeling anxious about having a dental exam, share your concerns with your dentist or hygienist. He or she might be able to adjust your treatment to help you feel more comfortable.

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What you can expect

During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will:

  • Evaluate your overall health and oral hygiene
  • Evaluate your risk of tooth decay, root decay, and gum or bone disease
  • Evaluate your need for tooth restoration or tooth replacement
  • Check your bite and jaw for problems
  • Remove any stains or deposits on your teeth
  • Demonstrate proper cleaning techniques for your teeth or dentures
  • Assess how much fluoride you're getting through your diet and use of oral hygiene products
  • Take dental X-rays or, if necessary, do other diagnostic procedures

During a dental exam, your dentist or hygienist will also ask about any health problems you have or medications you're taking and discuss how they might affect your oral health. If you have diabetes, for example, you're at increased risk of gum disease. Any medication that contributes to dry mouth can increase your risk of tooth decay. If arthritis interferes with your ability to effectively brush your teeth, your dentist or hygienist might show you how to insert the handle of your toothbrush into a rubber ball for easier use — or recommend using a powered toothbrush.

If you have prosthetic replacements — such as dentures or bridges — your dentist or hygienist will examine how well they fit and discuss the need for adjustments.

Dental exams might also include counseling about diet, smoking and other lifestyle factors that can affect oral health.

Dental X-ray
A dental X-ray allows the dentist to see detailed images of specific sections of your mouth. Traditional X-ray film is developed in a darkroom, but a newer technique allows X-ray images to be sent to a computer and viewed on a screen. Various types of dental X-rays are available, including:

  • Bitewing. This type of X-ray allows the dentist to see the crowns of the upper and lower teeth. During a bitewing X-ray, you'll bite down on the X-ray film holder while the X-ray images are being taken.
  • Periapical. This type of X-ray allows the dentist to see the entire tooth and the surrounding bone.
  • Occlusal. This type of X-ray allows the dentist to see the way the upper teeth and corresponding lower teeth fit together when the jaw is closed.
  • Panoramic. This type of X-ray gives the dentist a broad view of the entire mouth.

X-rays aren't typically needed at every dental visit. Radiation exposure from dental X-rays is low — but talk to your dentist if you're concerned about radiation exposure.

Oral cancer exam
During your dental exam, your dentist or hygienist will look for any signs of oral cancer. He or she will feel the area under your jaw, the sides of your neck, and the insides of your lips and cheeks, as well as examine your tongue and the roof and floor of your mouth.

Dental impression
In some cases, the dentist might recommend making a dental impression of one or both jaws to produce a replica of your teeth and oral tissue. This can help the dentist or hygienist evaluate your bite or make a mouth guard or bleaching trays. The dentist or hygienist will fill horseshoe-shaped trays with a soft, gelatin-like material and place them over your upper or lower teeth. After a few minutes, the trays are removed and used to create a dental cast or replica of your mouth. The dentist might also have you bite down on a soft material to record and evaluate your bite.

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Results

After your dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will discuss your oral health, including your risk of tooth decay, gum disease and any other oral health problems, and preventive measures you can take to improve and protect your oral health. The dentist or hygienist will also recommend the best time to return for a follow-up visit — typically every six months. If you're at high risk of tooth decay or gum disease or have other oral health problems, the dentist or hygienist might recommend more-frequent checkups.

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