As if the coronavirus pandemic didn’t wreak enough havoc, dentists are ringing warning bells after seeing an increase in foul mouths — and not the horny kind — since it began. The detrimental effects COVID has had on our teeth were noted as early as September 2020, when an American Dental Association (ADA) survey found that more than half of polled dentists reported increases in stress-related ailments like chipped teeth. Worse yet, more than a quarter said they were fighting against more cavities and cases of gum disease, and according to anecdotal reports, the state of our mouths has only declined since.
One obvious reason for the widespread degeneration of our oral hygiene is a decrease in availability of dental care (or people avoiding the dentist so they don’t catch COVID). Many dentists were closed for some time during the pandemic and continue to space out appointments as a coronavirus precaution, which means they’re seeing fewer patients. Furthermore, as a 2021 report from the CareQuest Institute for Oral Health reveals, “An estimated six million American adults have lost their dental insurance because of a job loss or benefits change that was caused by COVID-19.” The report also found that 28 million adults have delayed their dental care due to cost, lack of insurance or fear of the virus.
But as the ADA survey suggests, there’s more to our dental decline than just that. For starters, the pandemic and the sweeping upheaval it was accompanied by made many of us so stressed that our oral hygiene simply went down the drain. “People were consumed with worry and neglected to brush and floss daily,” says dentist Rhona Eskander. “Moreover, people with kids found it too stressful and just focused on being with their children, so they often forgot to brush.” After all, in-person school and child care weren’t available to lessen their load.
All that stress also directly impacted our teeth by propelling us to subconsciously grind them and clench our jaws more frequently. That’s why dentists are seeing more chipped teeth and once-mighty molars that are now measly nubs.
Another factor is that more people are working from home or not at all, which has led to fewer pre-work routines that include brushing teeth and more unhealthy midday snacking. “Twenty-four-hour fridge access enables people to snack a lot,” says Ross (a pseudonym), a 27-year-old dental student in Southern California. Especially for those among us who are coping with comfort food, that means more sugar is lingering on our teeth and causing decay throughout the day.
That said, like those among us who improved their lives by exercising more or spending less time commuting during the pandemic, some have managed to up their oral hygiene. “A large number of patients actually maintained a really good standard, because they were worried that they wouldn’t get seen if they needed treatment,” says dentist Anna Peterson, who’s famous on TikTok for her oral hygiene advice. Similarly, Ross is sure to add, “There’s good among the bad.”
Likewise, the already-significant lack of accessible dental care that was worsened by the pandemic prompted researchers to look into how we can provide adequate, affordable treatment for people who traditionally lack the means, which is great news.
Still, dentists say the cheapest way to keep your teeth healthy is, as always, by taking care of them at home. It’s not always easy, but for now, it’s the best chance we have at recovering our chompers. “Brush twice a day with an electric toothbrush,” Eskander says. “Clean your teeth interproximally with floss or a Waterpik. Use a fluoride-based toothpaste.”
“We don’t say that stuff all the time because we like the way it sounds,” Ross agrees. “We say it because we’re trying to save you from needing that crown, root canal or denture.”
Fine. I’ll do it.