Cracked teeth, gross gums: Dentists see surge of problems, and the pandemic is likely to blame

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Cracked teeth, gross gums: Dentists see surge of problems, and the pandemic is likely to blame

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Mason Motz, 6, was at the dentist’s office to get teeth pulled when Dr. Amy Luedemann-Lazar noticed a different issue: He was tongue-tied.

USA TODAY

Stress and isolation brought on by the pandemic are certainly bad for our mental health, but dentists say they’re seeing evidence our oral health is suffering too.

Reports of a huge spike in cracked teeth have received national media attention in recent days, but multiple dentists told USA TODAY that’s just the start of the problem.

“It’s like a perfect storm,” Dr. Michael Dickerson, an independent practice owner with Aspen Dental in Tarpon Springs, Florida, told USA TODAY. The patients he’s seeing now need “a ton of work,” as compared to the past, he said.

In the New York metropolitan area, it’s more of the same. Overall, patients’ mouths are “much dirtier than they were before … their gums are more inflamed,” Dr. Michael Fleischer told USA TODAY. Fleischer is a dentist and Senior Vice President of Clinical Affairs at Dental365.

And in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, endodontist Dr. Derek T. Peek said he treated twice as many cracked teeth this August compared with last year, even though he’s treated less patients. Endodontists are dentists who specialize in patients with complex or painful teeth issues.

People are putting off going to the dentist: But your dentist has put precautions in place.

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.

But dentists said that likely doesn’t explain all of the problems they’re seeing. The phenomenon was widely described 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 a number of scenarios that are likely playing out across the country right now, leading to the surge in cracked teeth and other dental problems.

Teeth grinding due to stress is likely up.

Teeth brushing and flossing are likely down as good habits slip and social outings decline.

Routine teeth cleanings have been put off.

And people with tooth pain delayed going to the dentist, hoping it would go away. (Dentists say this is a bad idea.)

While lifestyle changes are tough to measure, there’s data showing people are putting off visits to the dentist.

Only 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 also 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 density, things only get worse,” Fleischer said. As time goes on, dental fixes usually become more expensive, damage more permanent.

Dentists repeatedly told USA TODAY their practices are safe to visit, even during the ongoing pandemic. While they can’t eliminate all risk, dentists across the nation are taking 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

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