By Michael C. Lewis
The Salt Lake Tribune
First published Nov 10 2011 01:01AM
Updated Nov 11, 2011 07:54PM
Technically speaking, we’ve missed National Dental Hygiene Month.
That was last month.
But that hardly means the lessons promoted by the Utah Dental Hygienists’ Association during that time aren’t worth reviewing, especially with the deluge of holiday treats that are about to start marching down our throats.
Probably not a bad idea, either, to understand more about just what a dental hygienist does, and how they can help patients maintain healthy lives. After all, they do more than just clean your teeth!
What is a dental hygienist? • Dental hygienists are the specially trained workers who assist dentists with their patients, typically assessing a patient’s health and advising the dentist about any possible problems.
They’re also usually the ones who clean your teeth, removing harmful plaque and tartar that can build up and lead to tooth decay, gum disease and other bacterial infections. They specialize in preventing oral health problems, so they have lots of good ideas about healthy dental habits.
What do hygienists do? • Dental hygienists are responsible not only for cleaning your teeth, but also for examining your head, neck, mouth and throat for signs of possible health trouble.
Two of the most important exams they perform are the oral cancer screening and the periodontal assessment. Both are simple and painless, and can help detect health problems before it’s too late. Hygienist Kathy Harris of the UDHA said that not receiving either when visiting your dentist amounts to neglect.
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“It’s just like checking your blood pressure at your physician’s office,” she said. “It should just be common practice, every six months.”
What will dental hygienists tell you? • For good oral health, the American Dental Hygienists’ Association recommends people brush their teeth twice a day and floss at least once. It also advocates rinsing with anti-bacterial mouthwash and chewing a sugar-free gum after eating, to help prevent tooth decay.
Why are hygienists so important? • Most people don’t know that research suggests oral bacteria is linked to many other diseases and problems elsewhere in the body — such as heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and low birth weight in infants, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“The public is not aware of how the mouth is associated with the whole body,” Harris said.
That’s why early detection of dental problems is so important, and why dental hygienists play such a crucial role. Harris said many people see their dentists far more often than they see a regular physician, meaning that hygienists often are a first line of defense against serious health problems.
Are dental hygienists licensed? • Yes, dental hygienists must be licensed by the state in order to work in a dentist’s office, and patients are entitled to ask whether their hygienist is properly trained and licensed. The UDHA says that if a hygienist’s state license is not in plain view in his or her office, you can ask to see it.
How does someone become a hygienist? • Anybody can become a dental hygienist, by completing a dental hygiene program at an accredited college and passing the National Dental Hygiene Board Exam.
The UDHA lists six dental hygiene programs in the state of Utah, including a bachelor of science program at Dixie State College in St. George that is completely online. Most programs take two to three years to complete and culminate in an associate’s degree, though hygienists also can earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees, depending on the school they attend.
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