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Frequently asked questions about dental health

There are probably lots of questions you keep meaning to ask your dentist, but don’t always have time during dental appointments. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about oral health.

1. How safe are dental X-rays?

Exposure to all sources of radiation -- including from the sun, minerals in the soil, appliances in your home, and dental X-rays -- can damage the body's tissues and cells and can lead to the development of cancer in some instances. Fortunately, the dose of radiation you are exposed to during the taking of X-rays is extremely small.

Advances in dentistry over the years have lead to the low radiation levels emitted by today's X-rays. Some of the improvements are new X-ray machines that limit the radiation beam to the small area being X-rayed, higher speed X-ray films that require shorter exposure time compared with older film speeds to get the same results, and the use of film holders that keep the film in place in the mouth (which prevents the film from slipping and the need for repeat X-rays and additional radiation exposure). Also, the use of lead-lined, full-body aprons protects the body from stray radiation (though this is almost nonexistent with the modern dental X-ray machines).

Even with these advancements in safety, it should be kept in mind, however, that the effects of radiation are added together over a lifetime. So every little bit of radiation you receive from all sources counts.

2. What are dental sealants, who should get them, and how long do they last?

Sealants are a thin, plastic coating that are painted on the chewing surfaces of teeth -- usually the back teeth (the premolars, and molars) - to prevent tooth decay. The painted-on liquid sealant quickly bonds into the depressions and grooves of the teeth forming a protective shield over the enamel of each tooth.

The British Dental Association recommends this treatment for some children - usually where brothers or sisters have tooth decay. Sealants can protect the teeth from decay for up to 10 years, but they need to be checked for chipping or wear at regular dental check-ups.

3. When will drill-less dentistry become a reality?

Drill-less dentistry, also called air abrasion and microabrasion, is being offered by some dentists now. Air abrasion can be used to remove tooth decay, to remove some old composite restorations, to prepare a tooth surface for bonding or sealants, and to remove superficial stains and discolourations. The air abrasion instrument works like a mini sandblaster to spray away the decay, stain, or to prepare the tooth surface for bonding or sealant application. With air abrasion, a fine stream of particles is aimed at the tooth surface. These particles are made of silica, aluminium oxide, or a baking soda mixture and are propelled toward the tooth surface by compressed air or a gas that runs through the dental handpiece. Small particles of decay, stain, etc., on the tooth surface are removed as the stream of particles strikes them. The remnant particles are then "suctioned" away.Although very useful for superficial decay, many dentists still opt for a conventional drill when treating deep cavities that are near to the pulp of the tooth.

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