See a Dentist Now to Save Money Later

Many families are feeling the financial bite when it comes to tooth care. But seeing a dentist now can actually save you cash in the long run.
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Brush Up on Prevention

When times are tough, it's easy to blow off the dentist. More than half of Americans who are uninsured say they can't afford the care they need. But what's more surprising is that nearly a third of adults who have insurance say they have gone without necessary dental care in the past 12 months because of the cost, a Harris Interactive/Healthday poll reports.

Skipping dental appointments may seem like a good way to help balance your budget, but neglecting your mouth now can be expensive later. Ignore a cracked filling and it could require a $2,000 root canal down the road. And avoiding your dentist can be dangerous if you have periodontal disease that isn't treated. The bacteria can travel throughout your body, causing inflammation or infections that may lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or pneumonia. In rare cases, oral infections can even be fatal. Hormonal changes during pregnancy also increase the risk of gum disease, which may boost the odds of having a low-birth-weight or preterm baby, says Mark Schlesinger, DDS, a clinical assistant professor at the New York University College of Dentistry.

The key is to catch oral health problems early, when they're relatively easy and inexpensive to treat. Good at-home maintenance and regular cleanings (usually covered 100 percent by insurance) can stave off many tooth and gum troubles. "Prevention is still the best investment you can make," says Ohio dentist Matthew Messina, DDS, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association. Our expert advice will help you get the dental care you need without breaking the bank.

First, back to basics. Taking care of your teeth and gums at home, and doing it religiously, will pay off at your checkups.

Brush for two minutes twice a day. Use a soft-bristle brush held at a 45-degree angle to get under the gum line. Replace it every three months. There's no need for a pricey power toothbrush, but if you like them, consider getting one with oscillating rotating heads. That type does a better job than manual brushing, according to a review of studies.

Floss daily. We know, it's tough to get into the habit. "Every other day or a few times a week is better than nothing," says Dr. Messina. Waxed and unwaxed flosses are both effective: Go with the type you prefer, because it's the one you'll use. Mild bleeding is normal at first, but check with your dentist if it continues.

Rinse your mouth with water after meals and snacks. This will wash away food particles, advises Dr. Schlesinger. Some dentists recommend using a commercial mouthwash. Essential oils (found in Listerine) or chlorhexidine (sold as a prescription mouthwash) seem to help reduce plaque, according to a review of studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. Results for another common active ingredient, cetylpyridinium chloride, vary depending on the brand. If you're cavity-prone or live in an area without fluoridated water, your dentist may suggest a mouthwash with fluoride. Rinses with other ingredients usually work mainly as breath fresheners.

Chew sugarless gum if you have a dry mouth (a common side effect of some medications, such as antidepressants and antihistamines). Chewing helps stimulate saliva, which makes plaque less sticky and easier to clean off, explains Celeste Kong, DMD, a professor at Boston University's school of dental medicine.

Make an appointment. Without insurance, getting your teeth checked and cleaned every six months with an annual X-ray can cost about $350 a year, according to the ADA. At just a dollar a day, that's a worthwhile investment. If you're insured, preventive care is free with most plans.

Stop smoking. Not only does it stain your teeth and mask the signs of periodontal disease, but smoking also decreases the blood supply to the mouth and slows healing, which makes gum disease harder to treat. Smokers also spend more on dental care.

Continued on page 2:  Can It Wait?


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