Your Dentist's Office Could Give You a Serious Infection, CDC Warns: Here's How To Prevent It

A health hazard could be lurking in your dentist's office.

Everyone knows good oral hygiene is essential for fresh breath and a sparkling smile, but recent studies have shown just how important regular brushing and flossing are. Failing to practice daily oral hygiene habits can lead to poor heart health and even cognitive decline—and yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 26 percent of Americans have untreated tooth decay, and 46 percent of adults older than 20 show signs of gum disease.

Regular dental cleanings and checkups are an essential part of maintaining good dental hygiene—but recently, a rash of serious infections resulting from dental visits has prompted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to issue a health advisory that you'll want to know about before your next trip to the dentist's office. Read on to find out the one urgent question you need to ask your dentist before you settle into the chair.

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Oral problems can impact your overall wellness.

Dentist examining patient.
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The Mayo Clinic explains that problems in your mouth can have serious effects on the rest of your body. "Like other areas of the body, your mouth teems with bacteria—mostly harmless," the site explains. "But your mouth is the entry point to your digestive and respiratory tracts, and some of these bacteria can cause disease."

Gum disease is not the only condition caused by oral bacteria and the inflammation it causes, they warn. "Your oral health might contribute to various diseases and conditions," according to the site, which notes that these include endocarditis (a life-threatening heart condition), cardiovascular disease, and pneumonia, which occurs when bacteria enters your lungs.

Good hygiene habits start early.

Dentist talking to child in dentist chair.
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The importance of good oral hygiene starts in childhood, even before teeth appear. "It is important to care for your child's teeth and dental (oral) health from birth," advises the New York State Department of Health. "Practicing healthy habits can prevent or reduce tooth decay (cavities) in infants and children."

Tooth decay is one of the most common chronic childhood diseases in the US, says the CDC. "Untreated cavities can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing, and learning," the site says, pointing out that the ramifications of poor oral health are far-ranging. "Children who have poor oral health often miss more school and receive lower grades than children who don't."

Ask your dentist this important question before a checkup.

Doctor checking patient's jaw.
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In Oct. 2022, the CDC issued a health advisory about contaminated water lines at dentists' offices in the U.S. "Multiple outbreaks of nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) infections have occurred in children who received pulpotomies in pediatric dental clinics where the dental treatment water contained high levels of bacteria," they wrote.

This infection can affect adults as well. Here's what to watch for, according to the CDC: "Signs and symptoms of a postoperative dental infection could include a localized oral abscess, fever, or pain and swelling in the mouth or neck."

The best way to protect against this serious infection is to have a chat with your dentist. "Talk to your dental provider about their infection prevention and control practices and the steps their staff take to ensure safe treatment for all patients," advises the CDC, explaining that they "[provide] guidelines on infection control in dental settings which contain recommendations to treat dental unit waterlines and monitor water quality."

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Dental infections can be extremely dangerous.

Patient resting on hospital bed having heart rate checked.
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Asking your dentist about their water lines—Are they routinely checked and cleaned? What is being done to prevent infection?—is necessary after numerous people were sickened.

The CDC describes dental unit waterlines as "narrow-bore plastic tubing that carry water to the high-speed handpiece, air/water syringe, and ultrasonic scaler." These dental units can be prone to bacteria because of their "long, small-diameter tubing and low flow rates used in dentistry and the frequent periods of stagnation," they explain. "As a result, high numbers of common waterborne bacteria can be found in untreated dental unit water systems." The potential diseases caused this bacteria includes Legionella, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and nontuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM), warns the CDC.

Michele Neuburger, DDS and a dental officer in CDC's Division of Oral Health, tells Drugs.com that NTM infections after dental procedures can be extremely serious. "These infections can be resistant to antibiotic treatment and are difficult to treat." Neuburger says that surgical procedures were necessary to treat every case of NTM infections after dental treatment. "These infections can be persistent, get worse over time, and may not respond to initial treatments such as incision and drainage and routine antibiotics."

Luisa Colón
Luisa Colón is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Latina, and many more. Read more
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