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Dental check-ups and dental cleaning
Dr Cathryn Madden Reviewed by Dr Cathryn Madden, Dentist

What’s the difference between a dental check-up and a dental clean? And how often should you get them? We’ll break it all down.

Regular dental check-ups and dental cleaning appointments are important for keeping tabs on your overall oral health. Not all problems are visible from the outside, but a dentist may be able to spot a problem just by looking more closely at the inside of your mouth for tell-tale signs.

Proper dental cleaning supports your dental exam by helping you reduce the chance of problems worsening or developing in the first place.

If you already know you want a dental check-up or professional dental clean, find a dentist near you.

What’s the difference between a dental check-up and dental clean?

When you visit the dentist for a check-up, they're inspecting the overall health of your mouth. This includes your teeth and gums but also soft tissues like your tongue and cheeks. They're generally looking for signs of infection, injury or any other health concerns, such as oral cancer. In particular, dentists and hygienists are on the lookout for signs of gum disease, cavities, tooth damage and evidence of tartar build-up.

But when you have a professional cleaning appointment, your dentist or hygienist is providing the type of thorough clean you often can’t achieve yourself at home. This means removing any build-up and applying special treatments that can help protect your enamel.

Many dental clinics offer both of these appointments together. Some have dental hygienists who specialise in cleaning and can give you in-depth advice about looking after your teeth and gums at home. Other may even have oral health therapists, dental professionals who provide some clinical treatments but also in-depth education about oral hygiene — especially for children and young adults.

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What to expect during a dental check-up

One of the first things your dentist will want to know is if there's anything different since your last visit. Or, if it’s your first time, they’ll want to know a bit about your dental and medical histories. They’ll definitely want to know if you’re pregnant!

Certain medications can have oral health implications, like dry mouth. So be sure to mention any medications during your first visit or update your dentist if you’ve recently started taking a new medication.

Your dentist may choose to take an x-ray of your mouth to see what's happening below the gum line and check jaw alignment. Your dentist might only take an x-ray during some of your check-ups.

They'll also check areas that may have caused previous problems or past dental work to make sure they look strong and intact.

After having a look at your teeth and gums, many dentists will recommend a treatment plan. This can be as extensive as a recommendation for several different procedures over several different visits, or as simple as coming back for another check-up in 12 months.

What happens during professional dental cleaning?

A dental professional may use scalers or currettes, which help them remove tartar from the surface of your teeth and along your gumline. They might also use ultrasconic tools that break up hard deposits.

Polishing is another common step during a dental clean. It combines a gritty paste with a handheld device to remove stains from the surface of the teeth.

Your dental clean might happen in the same visit as your check-up or during a separate appointment. Commonly known as a “scale and polish,” a professional dental cleaning can help remove food debris and tartar build-up using specialist equipment.

Benefits of professional dental cleaning

While proper brushing and flossing can help you reduce plaque build-up, it’s usually not possible to completely remove tartar without a visit to the dentist.

Plaque refers to the sticky film that covers the teeth and is made up of bacteria. When it hardens, plaque turns into tartar. The bacteria present in plaque can react with the sugars found in foods and drinks to produce acid. This acid can damage the hard, outer layers of the tooth and cause holes in the surface (“cavities” or “caries”).

Bacteria can also lead to gum disease, which may cause swelling, inflammation or bleeding. In the most serious of cases, gum disease can create issues with the tissues holding the teeth in place and might result in tooth loss. Professional cleaning helps remove the plaque that can cause gum disease; combined with a regular oral hygiene routine at home, this can help reduce your chances of developing gum disease.

Another possible benefit is that dentists, hygienists and oral health therapists are likely to give you personalised feedback on your oral hygiene. They might be able to recommend specific products or brushes. For example, if they see signs of gum erosion or damage to your gums, they might recommend a specific type of toothbrush with softer bristles, or give you tips on how to brush in a way that’s gentler on gums.

How often do you need a dental check-up or dental cleaning?

Your dentist will recommend how often you should visit based on your individual needs and circumstances. They may suggest you come back in a few months, or they might not need to see you for a little while longer.

Whatever timeframe your dentist suggests, it's important to return as instructed. If you're ever unsure, making appointments every 6-12 months tends to fit a lot of people’s circumstances.

If it’s been more than 2 years since you’ve had a dental check-up, consider booking an appointment.

Speak with a professional

A dental professional is best-placed to answer any specific questions you may have. Search for a dental clinic near you.

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The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.

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