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The consequences of avoiding the dentist

There's a widespread problem of poor dental health in this country. Nearly half of adults, don't visit the dentist regularly.

There's no lack of excuses we use for why we don't need to go to the dentist. From "it's too expensive", to "I don't like needles", or "I don't have painful teeth", even "I do have pain, but it'll go away". As a nation we're well practised at justifying our well overdue check-ups. 

Sure, nobody enjoys going to the dentist, some might even dread the thought and that's fair enough. Who wants to have sharp instruments poked and prodded around their mouth and then pay for the experience?

But our excuses aren't fooling the oral health professionals of this country. The New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) says there's a widespread problem of poor dental health nationwide and the stark lack of importance we place on our oral health is disturbing.

Tooth decay can get significantly worse if not treated at the early stages. Untreated, it could lead a root canal treatment.

The association's representatives explain the temporary pain in our mouths and on our wallets is a heck of a lot better than the alternative many of us are putting ourselves at risk of. 

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Tooth decay is a significant problem. Last year 29,000 children aged between one to 14 years-old had one or more teeth removed due to decay, pain or abscess.

According to the National Oral Health Survey nearly half of adults, or 47 per cent, don't visit the dentist regularly.


Across the Tasman our Aussie counterparts are showing us up. When compared with Australian adults, New Zealand adults had poorer oral health and were less likely to have seen a dental professional in the last year, according to the survey. 

The statistics are worse for Kiwi kids: more than 80 per cent don't have regular dental check-ups, despite children being entitled to free oral health care until they turn 18.

All New Zealanders should visit the dentist at least annually.

Last year alone, 29,000 children aged between 1 to 14 years-old had one or more teeth removed due to decay, pain or abscess.

Approximately 40 per cent of 5-year-olds suffered from decay in one or more teeth. In Maori and Pacific children this is worse with 60 per cent of Maori and 65 per cent of Pacific children suffering from tooth decay.

NZDA president Susan Gorrie simply can't fathom these numbers. Asked why we don't place a higher importance on our oral health she's lost for words, "I'm the wrong person to be asking. I simple don't understand!"

But if she was going to hazard a guess she says "people just don't make the link between their oral health and general health".

Our cavalier "she'll be right" attitude isn't doing us any favours. Gorrie says the majority of adults usually only use oral health services when they have a painful problem, rather than visiting for routine check-ups.

Leaving the problem until it's too late has seen 10 per cent of us take time off school or work due to dental problems, according to the New Zealand Health Survey. 

While 16 per cent of adults admitted that they have "often" or "very often" had negative impacts due to poor oral health. 

"Don't wait until there's pain. It's often a late sign that there's something wrong. Better to go regularly and get advice on how to prevent the problem ... Prevention is better than cure," she says. 

NZDA senior oral health educator Deepa Hughes says those who only visit for a dental problem are known to have significantly worse oral health than regular users.

Apart from having a stained, yellow smile we're less than proud to flash for photos, what is the downside of our non-committal relationship with dentists?

"By not visiting regularly they are risking small problems getting worse or advanced to a level where it takes a lot more time, stress and money to get it fixed," Hughes says.

"Both tooth decay and gum diseases can get significantly worse if not treated at early stages. For example, if a simple cavity needing a filling is left untreated, it could eventually lead to needing a root canal treatment.

"Similarly, if not treated early, gum disease and gingivitis can progress into more advanced stages where the bone and tissue surrounding the teeth start to deteriorate."

At the more extreme end of the scale he says untreated dental abscesses can spread into tissue spaces and cause septicaemia or facial swelling which, if severe, can lead to airway obstruction and potentially death. 

If a root canal or even septicaemia isn't motivation enough to book that appointment, he says, "remember, if you delay dental treatment it may end up costing you a lot more than if you get your teeth fixed straight away".

Clearly our once in a blue moon visits aren't cutting it with the experts, so how frequently should we be going to the dentist? At least every 12 months Hughes says, even if your teeth are absolutely fine.

Depending on an assessment of risk this could vary. Some people may need to visit their dentist more frequently, possibly every three to six months, depending on the health of their teeth and gums. 




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