Even if you’re the most dutiful of dental patients, a recent study found something in your dentist’s office could be making you sick.
Researchers from Tufts University School of Dental medicine and the Forsyth Institute tested 20 dental bib clips—the clips that hold the protective bib over your chest—before and after disinfection. Even after the clips were wiped down with a disinfectant towelette (the most common cleaning protocol, according to Bruce Paster, PhD, of the Forsyth Institute), 40% of the bib clips tested positive for aerobic bacteria. In addition, 70% of the clips retained one or more strains of anaerobic bacteria, which cannot grow in the presence of oxygen.
That’s not to say that you’re going to catch the last patient’s cold just by wearing the clips. “We didn’t find any nasty bugs. About 45% of bacteria left behind are commonly found on top of the skin, while about 15% were leftover oral species from the patient,” says Paster. If the patient before you carries something like MRSA, though, there is a “potential for transmission” if the hygienist touches your mouth after she touches the clips with the same gloves.
We know what you’re thinking—if the clips are being disinfected, how can some bacteria still stay put? Some bacteria (specifically aerobic species) need a longer exposure to the disinfectant in order to be completely eliminated, says Paster. “It reduces their survival, but it doesn’t kill them. They’re either resistant to the disinfectant or they live in the nooks and crannies of the clip.”
“Showing patients the potential [for contamination] we hope will minimize the risk and make patients more inclined to speak up,” Paster says. You are well within your rights to ask for the clips—or anything else in the office, for that matter—be disinfected right in front of you. Sure, you might feel a little awkward, but better a little internal discomfort that a mouthful of bacteria!
Here are a few more ways to stay even safer at your next appointment:
Be on glove patrol. If your dentist or hygienist walks into your examination room already wearing gloves, you can ask them to put new ones on. “They could have put them on right outside the door,” says Paster, “but how are you to know that?”
Watch where they touch. Your dentist is looking around, then heads to the computer to record what she sees, then starts touching your mouth again. Guess what—you just swapped spit with the computer mouse, used by every hygienist who works in the room. If you see this happening, or they wipe their forehead or answer the telephone with their gloves on, you’re well within your rights to ask for new gloves or instruments, says Paster.
Beware the suction tube. “Every patient gets a new, sterile outer core of the suction tube,” says Paster. “But the inner tube is not necessarily washed for each patient.” Closing your mouth around the suction tube can cause backwash from the tube—which could include saliva and blood from previous patients—to enter your mouth. Yuck! Ask the hygienist to use the suction throughout the procedure, so he can handle excess saliva without making you touch the tube.