See a Dentist Now to Save Money Later
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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.

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.

Can It Wait?

You may be able to put off some types of dental care to save a few bucks, but there are times when you need to act fast.

Checkup and Cleaning

It can wait
Most dentists recommend a checkup and cleaning every six months, but there's no hard evidence to support that timing. If you take good care of your teeth and rarely have problems, alternating checkups and cleanings every six months -- so you get each of them once a year -- can save a little dough yet help ensure that something major won't go unnoticed for too long.
Don't delay
If you have old fillings or a lot of dental work, the odds of a problem increase, so those six-month checkups are essential. If you have periodontal disease, you may need to get a professional cleaning every three months.

Sensitive Teeth

It can wait
If your teeth have become temperature-sensitive because you're using an at-home whitener, stop using the product and talk to your dentist at your next visit.
Don't delay
If a tooth is suddenly sensitive to cold, heat, or sweets, you may have a cavity that has caused the pulp inside your tooth to become inflamed. Get a filling now to avoid an expensive root canal or tooth extraction later.

X-rays

It can wait
If your checkups look good and your dentist has no reason to suspect a problem, you can probably schedule your X-rays every other year rather than the usual once a year.
Don't delay
If something hurts, you probably need an X-ray pronto to determine if there's decay or damage your dentist can't see.

Pain or Swelling in Your Mouth or Jaw

It can wait
Some things really can't wait. If the pain is mild and there's no swelling, make an appointment within a few days.
Don't delay
If you have intense, persistent pain or swelling, see your dentist immediately. You might have an infection or abscess that needs prompt treatment. Left alone, severe infections can be life-threatening.

Cost Cutters

Downsize your dental bill with these tips.

Be honest about your financial situation.
"You have to talk on a very personal level with the doctor who's treating you. Say, 'I really want to save this tooth. How can we work this out?'" suggests Alan Gluskin, DDS, professor of endodontics at the University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, in San Francisco. "Most are amenable to some sort of payment plan."

Ask questions.
Is there an alternative or less-expensive treatment? Is financing or a payment plan available? Is there a temporary fix until your financial situation improves?

Maximize your benefits.
When you reach the limits of your coverage for the year, ask your dentist if other work can wait until after the new plan year begins.

Go to school.
If you live near a dental school, give them a call. Fees are often lower, and the work is supervised by faculty members.

Take a tax break.
Use your Flexible Spending Account or Health Savings Account to pay for dental expenses on a pretax basis. Don't have one? Dental fees are tax-deductible to the extent that your total health-care expenses exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income. It can be hard to reach that level, but you may catch a break if you're getting expensive procedures, such as implants, or your family has a lot of combined medical and dental expenses relative to your income in a single calendar year.

The White Stuff

You can brighten dingy teeth at home with drugstore products for a fraction of what you'd pay your dentist, but the results are slower and less dramatic. All whiteners contain peroxide but in different concentrations: about 2 to 4 percent for over-the-counter products, 10 to 22 percent for take-home trays from your dentist, and 30 to 35 percent for in-office procedures. "If your teeth are truly discolored, drugstore whiteners won't have the power to do the job," says Dr. Messina.

The cost can vary from less than $50 for over-the-counter gels or strips to between $100 and $400 for take-home trays from your dentist and around $500 or so for in-office, light-activated whitening. (Manufacturers claim that using a special laser or light improves results, but some dentists say the added cost isn't worth it.) With any type of whitening, sensitivity is the most common side effect. If you have any problems, stop using the product and check with your dentist.

Products We Like

Colgate Wisp Plus Whitening (pictured), a portable, disposable way to clean teeth and freshen breath on the go; 4-pack, $2

Supersmile Professional Whitening Gum, 12 pieces, $4

Arm & Hammer Spinbrush Swirl, $4.50

Oral-B Glide Pro-Health Clinical Protection Floss protects against gingivitis, cavities and bad breath, $3.50

Tom's of Maine Wicked Fresh! nonalcoholic mouthwash, $5

Burt's Bees Natural Whitening Toothpaste with Fluoride and plaque-fighting cranberry extract, $5

Crest 3D White Professional Effects Whitestrips, 20 strips, $50

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2010.

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