As well as regularly visiting your dentist, hygiene appointments should also be an essential part of your dental care. Hygienists are qualified members of the dental team who focus on preventing and treating gum disease by promoting good oral hygiene.

Gum disease causes inflammation of the tissue that surrounds teeth and, if not treated, it can lead to recession of the gums. This can cause pockets to develop as the gum moves away from the tooth and can eventually lead to loosening of the teeth. The cleaner your teeth, the less likely you are to develop gum disease. A hygienist will not only thoroughly clean your teeth but will also show you how to keep up the good work at home.

During an appointment, the hygienist will assess the health of your gums and teeth and look for any signs of swelling, inflammation or bleeding. The hygienist may also take measurements where the gum attaches to the tooth and check for signs of oral cancer.

A chief part of a hygienist’s role is to carry out a ‘scale and polish’ to remove any build-up of plaque and tartar. Plaque is the sticky layer that builds up on our teeth daily and which can harbour harmful bacteria. If allowed to accumulate, it can harden and form tartar, which can add to the vulnerability of the teeth as its rough surface will attract even more plaque. If tartar forms at the gum line, the early stage of gum disease (gingivitis) can occur, which can cause inflammation of the gums. If not treated, this can lead to more serious periodontal disease which can go on to cause tooth loss.

During a ‘scale and polish’, the hygienist uses specially designed implements to remove tartar from the tooth surface and underneath the gum line. When all the surfaces are clean, they polish teeth with a gritty paste, leaving them feeling smooth and silky. If gum disease has progressed beyond the early stages, a hygienist can remove tartar from the root surface to smooth the area and reduce inflammation of the gum tissue. This is known as root planing (or debridement) and, as it involves deeper cleaning under the gum line, it is a procedure that may require an anaesthetic to eliminate any discomfort.

Hygienists also offer helpful hygiene advice and demonstrate how to keep your teeth plaque-free with toothbrushes, interdental brushes and floss. In addition, they provide dietary and smoking cessation advice.

It is a good idea to introduce your children to a hygienist as soon as possible to encourage a relaxed approach to teeth cleaning treatments and so they can learn useful tooth care techniques. Hygienists can also protect young teeth with fissure sealants and fluoride varnishes to help keep decay at bay.

Regularly visiting a hygienist will not only help you maintain healthy teeth and gums, but also protect your overall well-being because poor gum health has been linked to more serious conditions such as heart disease, respiratory infections, diabetes and dementia.

What is a hygienist?

Dental hygienists are specially trained to work with the dentist in giving care to patients.

They play an important role in dental health care and are mainly concerned with gum health, showing people correct home care and applying preventive materials to the teeth and gums.

What is the hygienists role in the practice?

The hygienist’s main role is to professionally clean the teeth for the patient.  This is usually called scaling and polishing.  However, perhaps their most important role is showing the patient the best way to keep the teeth free of plaque.  The hygienist will work with your dentist to provide care tailored to your needs.

Why is this treatment important?

Regular professional cleaning combined with your home care will help keep your mouth healthy.  A clean and healthy mouth will improve your appearance, help you to keep your teeth and give you fresh breath.

Can a hygienist help prevent dental disease?

This is what the training of the hygienist is all about.  Carefully removing the deposits that build up on the teeth (tartar) and teaching you how to prevent it reforming again, will go a long way to slowing the progress of gum disease.

By discussing your diet, and recommending other preventive measures, your tooth decay can also be slowed down.

What help is available for children?

Children can benefit from having their teeth polished.  The hygienist can also apply fluoride gels and solutions to help prevent decay.

The permanent back teeth can also benefit from having the biting surfaces sealed.  This is done by applying a special plastic coating to the biting surface soon after they come through.

What other help can be given to adults?

Adults can also benefit from having fluoride applied.  They can also have anti-bacterial gels and solutions applied under the gum to kill the bacteria causing gum disease.

Another very important part of the hygienist’s work is giving regular instruction and advice on home care.  The hygienist may also suggest giving up smoking, as this will reduce staining.  Recent research has also shown that smokers have more gum disease and lose more teeth than non-smokers.

Why doesn’t the dentist do this work?

Some dentists will carry out this type of work.  However, many now recognise that the hygienist has been specially trained to carry out scaling and polishing and can spend longer with you.  They are also expert at teaching you how to look after your teeth and gums.  Often the hygienist will spend a number of appointments getting the gums healthy ready for the dentist to restore the teeth with crowns and fillings.

Will the treatment hurt?

Scaling and polishing is usually pain-free.  However, if you do have any discomfort the hygienist can use anaesthetic creams, or give you some local anaesthetic.  It is important that you let the hygienist know at the time so they can help with your pain.

Is the treatment expensive?

You can have the treatment under the NHS or privately.  It is important to find out the cost before you start, by getting a written quotation.

Some practices will have a price list displayed at reception giving a guide to the prices charged for the service.  Under the NHS rules, the government fixes the price.

What can I do to help the hygienist?

You can do a great deal to help yourself and the hygienist, as you are in control of your mouth between visits to the practice.

Your hygienist will have shown you how to remove plaque with a toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste.  You will also have been shown how to clean between your teeth with floss, tape or little brushes.  There are many products now available, and your hygienist will recommend those that are best for you.

Cutting down the amount of sugar in your diet, and the number of times that you eat during the day, can help to reduce decay.  Your hygienist can help you by looking at your decay problem, your diet and by making some recommendations for you to consider.

Does every practice have a hygienist?

Not all practices have a hygienist.  However more of them now offer this as part of the service to patients, using part-time and full-time hygienists.  Hygienists can now work when a dentist is not there, as long as the dentist has seen the patient and the treatment is prescribed for the patient.