Tooth or consequences: Why are we afraid of the dentist?

Even if you're religious about brushing twice a day and flossing, you need to see a dentist once or twice a year. The problem, according to a survey published in 2018, is that 60% of adults are afraid.

Dental anxiety is a thing, and it's one of the most common reasons people give for putting off dentist appointments. But while you're avoiding the dentist, poor oral health could be damaging your overall health. Gum disease and decay cause bad breath, pain, difficulty eating and drinking - and may even damage your heart.

If you put off the dentist long enough, minor problems become major, possibly leading to tooth loss. Oral cancers could be developing and you wouldn't know it.

Why are we so afraid?

Those of us of a certain age remember a time before dental anesthetics were commonly used. When you had to get a cavity filled, the sound of the drill and the sharp zing of it hitting a sensitive spot were enough to make you feel terrified.

For some, the thought of someone sitting so close they can stick their fingers in your mouth is off-putting, perhaps because of an easily triggered gag reflex. Fear of pain and needles is a big motivator, as the mouth has more nerves than many other parts of the body. The sound of a dental drill can literally set people's teeth on edge. Then there's the embarrassment of having someone examining your neglected teeth or getting a whiff of your breath.

The thing is: Your teeth won't get better on their own. Dentists - like all medical professionals - have seen (and smelled) it all. You're not going to gross them out or have them think less of you because of poor dental health. They understand, and that's why many techniques that lessen the pain and anxiety associated with dentistry are in wide use.

If you can't remember the last time you went to the dentist, examine why that is and then take some steps to alleviate your fear and anxiety.

Acknowledge the fear

The first step to getting over any phobia or anxiety is to acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Think back on your experiences with dentists and try to pinpoint exactly why going to the dentist is a source of anxiety. As you're remembering these details, remind yourself that you're playing old tapes and that dentistry has changed. Today, dentists are taught that if they're causing pain, they're not doing their jobs.

Choose the right dentist for you

Dental practices advertise "gentle" techniques, such as pain-free dentistry, relaxation and various kinds of sedation, including nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") and mild intravenous sedation that will make you unconcerned about what's happening and feel time is passing quickly. These are particularly helpful with longer, more complicated procedures such as oral surgery, wisdom tooth extraction and root canals.

If it's the drill that causes anxiety, look for a dentist who specializes in laser dentistry. Lasers can be used to remove decay, treat periodontal disease and perform root canals. You can also find dental practices that use hypnosis to lessen anxiety.

Communicate your feelings

The best thing you can do with any medical provider is to be up front about your fears and concerns so they can better understand what's going on and take steps to help. For example, if it's a fear of needles that's keeping you away, ask your dentist to show you how they handle injections. Chances are they use a topical anesthetic gel first and ultrafine needles so you don't even feel the pinch.

Distract yourself

Some dental practices will give you a set of headphones so you can listen to music or other soothing sounds. (Or bring your phone and a set of earbuds.) I've seen dentist chairs with TVs mounted over them so patients can watch a movie during a procedure. You can also practice some mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing.

Bring a friend (or advocate)

You won't be having much in the way of conversation while the dentist is busy with your mouth, but the comforting presence of a friend or family member might help you feel calmer. Be sure to ask first, though, because most procedure rooms are pretty small.

By managing your dental anxiety, you'll be helping not only yourself but also the youngsters in your life. They will see that going to the dentist is nothing to be afraid of.

• Teri Dreher, a registered nurse, is the founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( To learn more about patient advocacy, join Teri at the first Patient Advocacy Conference, being held June 16 at Abbington Distinctive Banquets in Glen Ellyn; visit for details. Daily Herald readers can also take advantage of a free 30-minute phone consultation with Teri. Call (847) 612-6684.

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