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How to Prepare for a Teeth Cleaning Appointment

Kelsey Tyler

It’s a familiar process: You get in the chair, open wide, let the dental professionals do their thing, and collect your oral-care goody bag on your way out. Then, in six months — or maybe three or four months, or even a year; different teeth have different needs — you do it again. Planning for something as mundane as a dental cleaning might seem unnecessary. But proper prep can make the experience more comfortable and productive. Here’s what experts recommend doing (and not doing) before getting your teeth cleaned.

Skip the pre-cleaning cleaning

Like the hotel guest who wants to tidy up before the maid comes in, dental patients often like to brush and floss before going in for a cleaning. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it might actually be better to leave a little food stuck in your teeth. “I want to know where the problem areas are,” says Mark Burhenne, a family dentist in California. “Where does the tuna from the sandwich get caught? Those can be areas where decay sets in.” Patients can brush if they want, he says, but he routinely advises against it. “Go out and have lunch instead, then come see us. If you floss, we can’t see where the food impaction is.”

Hold off on whitening

“A lot of people whiten before they come in to see us to show what a good job they’re doing of taking care of their teeth,” Burhenne says. “That’s a mistake.” Whitening processes, whether over-the-counter or applied in dental offices, can make teeth sensitive, and that’s not what you want right before a cleaning. Instead, plan on asking the dentist if you can have them brightened immediately following your cleaning. That, Burhenne says, is the best time, since the teeth have been scraped clean of debris and tartar and will be more receptive to the whitening agents. “The gel penetrates the tooth a lot quicker.”

Take notes

“People see a white coat and they go blank,” Burhenne says. Rather than assume you’re going to remember everything you wanted to ask your dentist, jot your questions down on a piece of paper or type a few keywords into your phone to help jog your memory. “Let’s say you have a cold sensitivity on the lower right after using toothpaste. Write it down. That way, you won’t be trying to remember everything you wanted to ask in the six months since your last appointment.”

Get ahead of dental anxiety

Fear or anxiety surrounding dental care is incredibly common: About 45 percent of American adults report at least a moderate level of dental fear, research suggests, while 10 to 20 percent admit to being highly fearful. But there are measures you can take to help yourself keep calm during a cleaning.

“Taking deep, slow breaths and focusing on relaxing [your] muscles — that is, not holding on to the chair armrests, or “white knuckling it,” for dear life — is very helpful,” says Lisa J. Heaton, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Washington School of Dentistry. “Practicing these at home can help people be able to use them more easily while in the chair.”

You can find instructions for diaphragmatic breathing online or download a guided meditation app that takes you through breathing exercises and/or guided imagery, says Heaton, who’s studied dental fear. If you don’t go the app route, consider choosing something — anything — to listen to during your cleaning (other than the sounds of teeth-scraping). “A lot of our patients listen to music [or] podcasts over headphones, which can be a great distraction,” says Heaton.

Bring your oral appliance

Many dental offices now offer treatment for sleep apnea that involves an appliance worn at night intended to open up your airway; other patients wear retainers following orthodontic work or guards to prevent grinding and clenching. Whatever the reason, if you have an oral appliance, make sure you bring it in so it can get a good scrub, too. “Tartar forms on the device just like it forms on teeth,” Burhenne says. A dentist might put it in an ultrasonic cleaning machine so it’s ready by the time you leave.

If you’re sick, reschedule your cleaning

According to Burhenne, a proper cleaning involves scraping below the gum line to remove tartar. That can irritate the gums and cause bacteremia, meaning that small amounts of bacteria get into the bloodstream from the mouth. That’s normal, but if you’re immunocompromised or otherwise unwell, it’s wise to postpone care until you’re feeling better. “Bacteremia is transient and isn’t usually an issue in healthy people,” Burhenne says. “But if you’re feeling run down, it’s best not to come in for a cleaning.”

Sometimes, dentists will suggest pre-medicating with an antibiotic to lessen the risk of a more serious infection. If you have heart conditions or any other chronic issue, make sure to let your provider know.

Show Comments (3)
  1. Davinder Raju

    The detection of early tooth decay requires tooth surfaces to be clean. Early detection means that very early tooth decay can be arrested before it turns into a cavity. So I would advise you clean your teeth to remove all deposits, and so help your dentist to help you.

  2. Dental health should be our first priority. This article is very helpful in keeping some important points in mind before going for dental cleaning. Nice article!

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