About 4 years ago, I went to the dentist for the first time in I don’t even know how many years. My teeth felt okay — I’d been brushing and rinsing regularly (flossing irregularly), and thanks to a fortunate coincidence of genetics, I inherited the remarkably impenetrable tooth enamel of my dad’s side of the family. Still, after all those years of no dental care, I was nervous about the state of my teeth and embarrassed for anyone to know how long I’d procrastinated.
At that appointment 4 years ago, the dentist — a new dentist I hadn’t seen before — told me I had 8 cavities and would need fillings on all of them. He drew up a plan for me to come in and have the work done over a course of two visits. Even with my insurance, the work would be over a thousand dollars.
How? Yes, it had been years since I’d been to the dentist, but previous dentists had always remarked on the health of my teeth. “Wow, you have really good teeth,” the tech would marvel while gaping into my mouth. Had a few years of neglect (okay, probably like 6 years) really caused so much deterioration? What had I done to myself?
I panicked. I did not schedule those visits to fill in the 8 cavities. Instead, I bought some stuff called MI Paste that supposedly restores enamel, and I flossed and rinsed religiously. I studied my teeth in the mirror every day, searching for the cavities the dentist had told me I had. I couldn’t find them. I had no pain. But every time I bit into a cold strawberry and winced, I was sure it was because of a deep, hidden cavity reacting to the cold berry. I had dreams of loose teeth, or of teeth suddenly falling out.
I didn’t go back to the dentist again until last year — 3 years after the “8 cavity” appointment. I went back to the same dentist, embarrassed for my lapse but knowing that if I had cavities, they ought to be taken care of. This time, they told me I had 6 cavities. Huh. Maybe my efforts had reversed a couple of the cavities. Still, they wanted to schedule another couple of appointments to fill the 6 cavities.
This time, I did not panic. I also didn’t schedule the appointments. I went to this dentist’s Google profile and checked out his reviews. Several indicated that he did more work than necessary to get more money from his patients. Reading those, I got a sick feeling in my gut. I asked around for recommendations and scheduled an appointment with a different dentist to get a second opinion.
That dentist told me what other dentists had told me in the past: You have remarkably healthy teeth. Not a single cavity.
I took two lessons from this: First, that the original dentist is a slimy conman. I left a scathing review. Second, I should not have waited to schedule normal maintenance of my teeth, regardless of my anxiety, and regardless of the condition of my mouth. What if the first dentist had been right? What if I’d had major problems in my mouth that for whatever reason I couldn’t feel, and I neglected getting those issues addressed, only to learn they’d worsened over time? As it was, I had nightmares about my teeth for years because that first dentist lied. If I’d gone to the second dentist sooner, I could have saved myself a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Regardless of whether my teeth were healthy, I shouldn’t have waited.
Of course, I know all too well what can happen if a cavity is allowed to develop unchecked. One friend waited too long to finally seek help for a deep cavity she hoped to “heal” on her own, and eventually the pain was so bad, it was interfering with her ability to eat or even exist without pain. She ended up needing extensive work to repair the damage. Her dentist warned that an infection could have made her very sick. It had been so hard for her to go though, and her embarrassment over procrastinating on scheduling the appointment she knew she needed only made her less likely to call with each passing day. It was her pain that eventually forced her to take action.
I know many of us are scared of the dentist. Having any kind of work done outside of a cleaning is not an enjoyable experience. I had one cavity as a child, on a baby tooth, and later, extensive orthodontia. None of it was fun. A few of my closest loved ones have struggled with their teeth for various reasons, for years, and not for lack of meticulous mouth hygiene. Some people have shitty enamel. Some people have no enamel. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. Nobody should feel ashamed to seek dental care regardless of the state of their teeth. If you’re practicing the best dental hygiene you can, that is all you can do. And even if you’re not, you still have a right not to feel pain and to have the necessary care to do better.
Of course, anxiety and shame are not the only reasons people delay dental care. Without dental insurance, and sometimes even with it, dental care can be prohibitively costly. Cost is an even more common reason than fear for delaying dental care. Filling cavities can cost hundreds of dollars, and more extensive work like bridges or prosthetics can cost thousands. If you need care but can’t afford it, search locally for dental schools, public dental clinics, free clinics, or even ask local private dentists if they ever do work for free. Some dentists perform a certain amount of free work for people who need care but can’t afford it. Also see if you qualify for Medicaid coverage.
Our mouths are the gateway to our bodies. They’re part of our overall health, every bit as worthy of care as any other part of us. If you need care, go get it. Don’t wait, and don’t be ashamed of how long you’ve already waited. You certainly won’t be the first person a dentist sees who has put off care for too long. And if you ever find yourself in a situation like the one I was in where your gut is telling you something is off, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Everyone deserves to have a healthy mouth.