Is it safe to return to the dentist?

It’s probably been over six months since your last dental appointment. Should you return for your check up?

Photo Credit: Andrea Piacquadio

I was lucky that I had my teeth cleaned right before the COVID-19 quarantine shut down. But now it’s time for my next cleaning, my dentist’s office is reopened, and like everyone around me, I’m wondering: Is it safe to return to the dentist?

Although I couldn’t find a definitive answer in my research, I did find a few things to consider in making the decision. 

In August, the World Health Organization advised postponing non-essential oral health care (check ups, cleanings and preventive care) until there is “sufficient reduction in COVID-19 transmission rates.” Because many dental tools such as drills and air-water syringes can create a visible spray which may contain saliva, blood and other microorganisms, there is a risk that droplets may contain COVID-19 if a patient has the virus. And those particles can remain in the air for up to three hours, increasing the risk to other patients and dental staff.  

The American Dental Association was quick to disagree with the WHO recommendation, highlighting the importance of identifying and treating oral disease which could affect an individual’s overall health. Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seemed to agree and issued guidance for dental professionals if they open their offices and treat patients during the pandemic. There is no direct patient guidance from the CDC as to whether and when patients should seek patient care. 

However, if you do decide to book that dental appointment, you should ask the office personnel if they are following the CDC guidance and doing the following:

Before the appointment

  • Proactively ask staff and patients to stay home if they are sick.

  • Use telephone screening for patients for COVID-like symptoms, and delay non-urgent care for those patients with symptoms. 

  • Limit the number of visitors accompanying the patient 

Coming into the Dental Office

  • Require all patients to wear a mask when entering

  • Take temperatures of all patients when they arrive.

  • Install physical barriers between staff and patients at reception

  • Post signs about face masks and hand washing guidelines

  • Provide hand sanitizers to all 

  • Remove magazines/materials in waiting rooms and place chairs so patients can sit at least 6 feet apart. 

During the dental examination or procedure

  • Staff should be wearing full eye protection, facemasks or even N95 respirators for certain procedures.

  • Staff should frequently wash their own hands and disinfect patient areas

Some offices are implementing these additional protections that might impact your decision. 

  • Ensuring patients are placed in separate offices, protected by walls/other barriers to minimize the spread of droplets. 

  • Using high velocity suctions to capture sprays/saliva when possible. 

  • Using only hand scaling when cleaning teeth to minimize droplets and sprays.

  • Installing high-efficiency particulate air filters to keep the office air cleaner. 

If you decide to continue to postpone your dental care, be extra vigilant about your oral health – cleaning and flossing regularly to keep your mouth and teeth healthy. And remember you can always ask for a telephone consultation if you want more advice about whether you should be coming in for any oral health concerns. 


Patricia Kelmar

Senior Director, Health Care Campaigns, PIRG

Patricia directs the health care campaign work for U.S. PIRG and provides support to our state offices for state-based health initiatives. Her prior roles include senior policy advisor at NJ Health Care Quality Institute, associate state director at AARP New Jersey and consumer advocate at NJPIRG. She was appointed to the Ground Ambulance and Patient Billing Advisory Committee in 2022 and works with patient advocates across the U.S. Patricia enjoys walking along the Potomac River and sharing her love of books with friends and family around the world.