A dental cleaning is a fairly routine procedure that is rarely painful. Those who fear dentists or who have marked tooth sensitivity may feel more discomfort than the average patient. Additionally, people who have not had their teeth cleaned in a long while may expect to experience a longer cleaning, and some extra pulling or scraping to remove plaque from teeth. For most people, however, a dental cleaning is more inconvenient than painful.
Most dental cleanings take between 30 minutes and an hour. If the cleaning is part of a yearly check-up, the dentist may also take X-rays to check for cavities. A dental hygienist usually performs most of the cleaning. The dentist will normally take a last look, and perhaps perform some difficult plaque removal toward the end of the cleaning, as well as evaluate the gums for gum disease.
People usually don't need pain medication for a dental cleaning. Some patients are made so nervous by dentists that they may ask for nitrous oxide though. Alternately, a patient might take a tranquilizer about an hour before the appointment to help with anxiety. In cases of extreme anxiety, some dentists use a method called sleeping dentistry, where a patient can be medicated and essentially sleep through a procedure.
Dental hygienists generally use several tools during a dental cleaning, including a tooth polisher and a scaler. Tooth polishers buff teeth and eliminate tiny pieces of plaque. They generally have several different sized heads for cleaning hard to reach places. Scalers look a bit like metal hooks and are used to remove hard plaque, especially between teeth. Some people find the use of a scaler uncomfortable, depending on their sensitivity level, pain threshold, the length of time since the last cleaning, and the extent of plaque build-up.
Dentists may also employ a device that shoots water into the mouth, so the person can rinse out plaque several times during the cleaning. In some cases, a dentist may merely use mouthwash for this purpose.
Those getting a dental cleaning should also expect the dentist to inquire about their home brushing and flossing activities. Dentists may lecture patients during a cleaning if they have a lot of plaque or if they don't regularly brush and floss their teeth. If a person is regularly caring for his or her teeth at home, and plaque build-up is still significant, this may indicate the need for more frequent cleanings.
Dental cleanings often conclude with advice about how to care for teeth at home, and scheduling any appointments needed for more extensive services, like filling cavities. People with busy dentists should schedule their next cleanings well in advance, so as to keep regular six-month cleaning appointments.
Anyone with a heart condition or who has undergone heart surgery should let the dentist know prior to the day of the teeth cleaning. People with heart problems or heart defects are at high risk for developing a condition called bacterial endocarditis, which can seriously affect the heart. The only treatment needed prior to a dental cleaning, unless otherwise instructed, is a dose of antibiotics an hour before the cleaning. If a dentist does not know the proper dosage, then the person should contact his or her physician. Usually dentists will know the dosage, but if in doubt, it's also possible to find information from the American Heart Association, which lists all guidelines for bacterial endocarditis prevention.