Stress and isolation brought on by the pandemic are certainly bad for our mental health, and dentists say they're seeing evidence our oral health is suffering, too.
Dentists told USA TODAY that reports of a huge spike in cracked teeth are just the start of the problem.
“It’s like a perfect storm,” Michael Dickerson, an independent practice owner with Aspen Dental in Tarpon Springs, Florida, told USA TODAY. The patients he sees need "a ton of work," he said.
In the New York metropolitan area, patients' mouths are “much dirtier than they were before … their gums are more inflamed,” Michael Fleischer told USA TODAY. Fleischer is a dentist and senior vice president of Clinical Affairs at Dental365.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, endodontist Derek T. Peek said he treated twice as many broken teeth this August compared with last year, even though he's treated fewer patients. Endodontists are dentists who specialize in patients with complex or painful teeth issues.
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There's no one single reason for the upward trend, dentists told USA TODAY. One factor at play: The first patients to go back to the dentist after widespread stay-at-home orders were likely the most in need.
Dentists said that probably doesn't explain all of the problems they see. They described the phenomenon as a ripple effect – another example of how the pandemic has altered daily lives and led to unexpected health problems.
Before shutdowns, lockdowns and quarantines, “your day had a rhythm to it," American Dental Association spokesman Dr. Matthew Messina told USA TODAY. When that rhythm is interrupted, it's easy to forget "simple little things like oral hygiene.”
Dentists suggested scenarios that are probably playing out across the country, leading to the surge in cracked teeth and other dental problems.
Teeth grinding due to stress is probably up.
Brushing and flossing are probably down as good habits slip and social outings decline.
Routine teeth cleanings have been put off.
People with tooth pain delayed going to the dentist, hoping it would go away. (Dentists said this is a bad idea.)
Though lifestyle changes are tough to measure, there's data showing people are putting off visits to the dentist.
One in five adults have visited a dentist office amid the pandemic, even though two in five adults said they’ve had dental issues since March, according to a survey released in August by Guardian Life. It says one in four U.S. adults won't be comfortable going to the dentist by the end of the year.
The nature of dental problems makes that a particularly problematic trend.
“With dentistry, things only get worse,” Fleischer said. As time goes on, dental fixes usually become more expensive, damage more permanent.
Dentists told USA TODAY their practices are safe to visit, even during the pandemic. Though they can’t eliminate all risk, dentists take steps to minimize the chances of spreading the coronavirus.
For Peek, whose daily routine as an endodontist involves seeing patients in pain, the pandemic has reinforced his role as a “teeth saver” for people of all ages.
His advice: “You really need to go get your teeth cleaned.”
Contributing: Elinor Aspegren; The Associated Press