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A periodontal probe is an instrument used to aid in the diagnosis of periodontal disease, or gum disease. The probe looks like a long, shiny, metal stick whose needle-shaped tip is marked with tiny lines. This tip serves as a measuring tool. A dental hygienist will slip this instrument into the area, or pocket, between a tooth and the surrounding gums, or gingival tissue. The depth of each pocket is then measured by reading the tiny markings along the probe.
Periodontal disease is determined, in part, by the readings taken from a periodontal probe. It is difficult to diagnose the severity of gum disease without poking around every tooth to check for the extent of damaged tissue. For this reason, the periodontal probe is sometimes called a periodontal explorer. In general, the deeper the probe slips into the pockets between a tooth and gums, the more severe the gum disease or gingivitis in that area. This is typically also a location where gums will bleed when brushing teeth.
When performing a routine dental exam and cleaning, it is the dental hygienist who usually sees a patient first. Dental hygienists are professionals who may even know more about assessing gum disease than dentists. The hygienist will insert the explorer or periodontal probe into every tooth pocket and then record these measurements, which represent the depth in millimeters (mm) that the periodontal probe sinks into each pocket before contacting solid, healthy tissue.
The sight of a periodontal probe approaching the mouth might be intimidating to some patients, especially young children. Many dental professionals are aware of this and have catered their businesses to the needs of family dentistry. Sometimes, allowing a patient, especially a child, to touch a periodontal probe and to see that the sharp tip is actually just a measuring stick can ease the anxiety surrounding the exam. The demonstration model should not be used during the exam, however, to ensure sterility.
Periodontal probes come in a variety of styles and are made by many different manufacturers. Dentists and hygienists often use the brand and style that adequately does the job while also meeting the comfort needs of patients. Dental probes and explorers are made of stainless or surgical steel and must be sterilized between patients. Sterilization of dental instruments is generally performed using an autoclave, a small appliance that uses intensely heated steam to kill microorganisms.