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Smile Pretty: Common Dental Problems and Treatments

Discoloration
Brunette woman smiling
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By Karen Pearson

What turns your pearly whites yellow? Blame dark and acidic food and drink, such as red wine, coffee, tea, colas, chocolate and even marinara sauce. Putting off a dental appointment isn't wise, because stains are easier to remove early on, when they're closest to the surface, says Debra Glassman, D.D.S., a cosmetic dentist in New York City.

The good news: You can make your smile eight to 16 shades lighter with one in-office, light-activated whitening procedure, like Kor, Zoom or Brightsmile. "When these first came out, the process took an hour and a half, and many people experienced tooth sensitivity afterward," says Dr. Glassman. "Now, because the lights are stronger, it takes only 45 minutes and sensitivity is less common." Home whitening kits (like strips or molds) are cheaper alternatives that can help too. But teeth may only get a few shades whiter, says Dr. Glassman, and you also need to use kits twice a day for two weeks. To give your teeth a mild brightening, brush with a whitening toothpaste after meals.

Price point: An in-office procedure will run you about $600 and isn't covered by insurance since it's cosmetic. Whitening kits usually cost $20 to $40.

Gum Disease

Plaque buildup can inflame the gums, causing gum disease. "The number one warning sign is bleeding after brushing or flossing," says Connie White, D.D.S., a dentist in Kansas City, Missouri, and a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry. In the early stages, a thorough cleaning might be all you need. But if the problem is left unchecked, it can progress to periodontitis, a more severe form that can lead to tooth loss and increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.

The good news: The treatment—a nonsurgical procedure called scaling and root planing—is much more tolerable than it used to be. At two separate appointments a dentist or hygienist will numb your mouth and remove irritants from under the gums. Thankfully, scraping the teeth with metal picks is pretty much a thing of the past. New ultrasonic vibrating tools are more likely to be used. They speed up the process and don't make that cringe-inducing noise.

Price point: Scaling and root planing costs $200 to $500 per quarter of the mouth. Insurance companies generally foot at least half of the bill, because it's considered preventive care.

Breakage

Decay, an injury and even eating something hard may all lead to a chipped tooth. Don't wait to get it repaired, because even a minor fracture can irritate the mouth. Plus, it makes the tooth more susceptible to further breakage. If possible, put the part that falls off in a glass with milk and call the dentist immediately. She may be able to re-attach it if she can see you within 30 minutes to an hour.

The good news: Dental lasers and air abrasion can painlessly take care of fillings or bonding. Those who need a crown or veneer have it easier as well. Patients often receive same-day treatment thanks to computer-assisted manufacturing of the new covering. Giving an impression is less of a hassle now too—the claylike material tastes better and sets faster. In some practices, that process can even be replaced by simply taking photos.

Price point: A filling usually costs $100 to $300, a crown can run from $800 to $2,000, and the price of a veneer ranges from $800 to $2,500. Insurance almost always takes care of fillings and pays about 50% for crowns, but veneers are rarely covered. How much your plan will pay depends largely on the material you choose (such as silver, gold or porcelain).

Tooth Truth

Brushing for two minutes (in the morning and at night) and flossing daily are still the two best preventive measures.

Fear Factor

Scared of the dentist? Try these easy, calming tricks.

Minimize the surprise
Have your dentist explain exactly what she plans to do ahead of time, including what tools she will use, how long the procedure will last and which parts may hurt more than others.

Develop a signal
Create a nonverbal gesture, like raising your hand, so you can alert the dentist anytime you feel pain.

Weigh your options
If your treatment requires anesthesia but you're needle-phobic, ask about electrical anesthesia, which sends numbing pulses through small sponges placed in the mouth or on the face. Or request nitrous oxide—laughing gas that leaves you sedated.

Break it up
If the procedure is going to last awhile, ask if it's possible to take short breaks at regular intervals.

Distract yourself
Some practices have TVs; otherwise, bring a portable music player and headphones.

Originally published in the October 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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