What Is Dental Prophylaxis? (Overview)

Dr. Matthew Hannan | My Dental Advocate
Matt Hannan, DDS
Updated: November 29, 2023
Professional teeth cleaning illustration | My Dental Advocate

If you ever watch the popular game show Jeopardy, the headline to this section, What is Dental Prophylaxis? could be the answer to a Jeopardy question like, “Another name for teeth cleaning.”

Prophy is Modern Latin from the Greek meaning to guard against the attack of something, like diseases.

Adequate home care is essential to maintaining a healthy smile; however, even the most diligent patient leaves behind bacteria after brushing and flossing.

Understanding Dental Prophylaxis

A prophylaxis cleaning removes dental plaque and tartar from the tooth surface and along the gum line, preventing things like gum disease from invading your mouth. This procedure includes prophy, basic cleaning, or routine cleaning.

A dental hygienist often performs this preventative procedure every six months to maintain healthy gums, teeth, and bones. It can be performed during your initial visit or at a subsequent appointment.

Why Are Cleanings Necessary?

Teeth are housed in a bony socket and surrounded by gum tissue.

Gum tissue is secured to the tooth by many periodontal fibers. This attachment prevents bacteria from penetrating the gums and entering the bone matrix below in a healthy mouth.

However, if bacteria are harbored under the gum line or deep in the gingival sulcus for long periods, it will irritate the tissue and cause the attachment to fail.

This inflammatory process is called gingivitis.

If your gums bleed when you floss, you likely have areas of inflammation or gingivitis. Fortunately, gingivitis can resolve through routine cleanings and improved home care.

However, gum disease will occur if bacteria are not removed, leading to attachment and bone loss. Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, may lead to the loss of teeth.

Bone loss is irreversible, so timely action should be taken.

Periodontal Probings

During your initial visit, your dentist or dental hygienist will assess your oral health using x-rays, medical history, dental questionnaire, and gum measurements.

Gum measurements, also known as periodontal probings, allow the clinician to measure your gum tissue in millimeters.

The dental probe is gently placed in the gingival sulcus surrounding each tooth, and six measurements are taken.

If the gum tissue is healthy and attached tightly to the tooth, the dentist or dental hygienist will note a smaller measurement as 1, 2, or 3 mm. If a 4 mm pocket is indicated, the gum attachment may be in the beginning stages of bacterial attack.

If your gum measurements are 1-4 mm and you have minimal gum inflammation and no bone loss, a prophylaxis cleaning will most likely be advised.

If measurements of 5, 6, or 7+ mm are noted, gum inflammation and bone loss have most likely occurred.

This process is referred to as periodontal disease.

Bone loss may be challenging to see by simply looking in the mouth, so it’s identified using radiographic x-rays. In rare cases, patients may have deep pockets with no bone loss when the gum tissue is severely inflamed from bacteria, medication, or specific medical issues.

What’s Involved During the Cleaning?

Dental FLoss Flossing Teeth Illustration | My Dental Advocate

After your medical history is reviewed and updated, your clinician will remove plaque, tartar, and stain.

If bacteria is left untreated, it assembles into a sticky substance known as plaque.

Over time, plaque will thicken and harden to form tartar, also known as calculus.

Calculus is visualized on x-rays or clinically as “rock-like” particles.

Calculus is removed using hand scalers and ultrasonic scalers. Ultrasonic scalers are incredibly efficient and thorough. Water spray cools the vibrating instrument as it scales away stubborn calculus.

The clinician will verify that all the plaque and tartar are removed before polishing and flossing your teeth.

If at any point you experience discomfort or pain, inform your clinician.

Topical numbing medication or local anesthetic can be administered if further pain relief is needed.

A rotary handpiece will be used to polish away any remaining dental plaque or stubborn stains. Some polishing pastes even contain fluoride to help remineralize your enamel.

After the paste is rinsed away, your clinician or assistant will floss your teeth and apply fluoride. Fluoride is essential to repair and remineralize weakened enamel.

Enamel is the strongest substance in your body; however, it’s gone for good once it’s gone. So do everything you can to preserve and protect it!

Ways to Improve Oral Health

As discussed earlier, bacteria are persistent and must be eliminated to maintain healthy gums. There are many ways to combat these organisms. Let’s look at simple ways you can improve your oral health.

Best Methods

  1. Is your physical health under control? If it’s been a while since visiting your primary care physician, schedule an appointment to confirm you have no underlying medical issues like diabetes, heart disease, or hypertension. If you have any medical issues, work with your doctor to keep them under control. For example, bacteria in your mouth travel to the rest of your body and vice versa. Some patients are predisposed to gum disease because of family genetics.
  2. Are you taking medications that cause dry mouth? Bacteria thrive in dry conditions, so if your mouth is dry, you’re at an increased risk for gum disease and tooth decay. Combat dry mouth by sipping on water, using Biotene or other salivary stimulants, chewing sugar-free gum, or sucking on sugar-free candy throughout your day. Also, discuss with your clinician if medicated fluoride toothpaste or mouth rinse would benefit you.
  3. Visit your dentist regularly. During your visit, your clinician will diagnose your gum health and advise you to be seen every 3, 4, or 6 months depending on your diagnosis, home care, oral health, and medical history.
  4. Routine cleanings are important. This may seem apparent; however, many patients choose to reschedule their dental cleaning only to cancel their appointment or fail to show up when they’re scheduled. Before you know it, you can’t remember the last time you had your teeth cleaned.
  5. Brush and floss daily. My Dental Advocate strongly recommends purchasing an electric toothbrush, as they are highly effective at removing dental plaque. If you hate flossing, commit to flossing at least twice a week and try to increase from there. If you avoid flossing because your gums bleed, continue flossing because the more you floss, the less they will bleed. If you have larger gaps between your teeth, try using a Waterpik instead.
  6. Use fluoride toothpaste and mouth rinse. As discussed earlier, fluoride is highly effective at repairing damaged enamel. If you have a dry mouth or are at increased risk for dental decay, fluoride toothpaste is essential to prevent future problems. A dry mouth is often an acidic mouth desired for cavity-causing bacteria.
  7. Eat healthy foods and consume an adequate amount of water. Oral health correlates significantly to systemic health. Therefore, improve your overall health by making healthy food choices and drinking the recommended daily dose of water. Water is essential for life; however, it also shields against dental decay and bacterial growth by regulating your mouth’s pH.
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My Experience & Expertise

Your gum tissue is an essential barrier to keeping out harmful bacteria. However, have you recently been to the dentist only to find out your oral health has suffered? Are you confused about the proposed treatment plan or question the procedure’s necessity?

My Dental Advocate’s team of board-certified dentists can provide a second opinion on your planned treatment. We look forward to bringing you peace of mind by verifying your treatment plan, suggesting an alternative, or just answering your questions – no Jeopardy involved!

Knowledge is power when cultivating healthy dental habits. The more informed you are, the better positioned you’ll be to prevent avoidable and potentially costly dental procedures for you and your family. Watch for future blog posts, where we’ll continue sharing important information, product reviews and practical advice!