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Home > Daily Dental Care > Your Dentist Visit > Dental Precautions Limit Spread of Infection
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Dental Precautions Limit Spread of Infection

Modern dental precautions limit infection.

Limiting the spread of infections in the medical and dental professions has gained widespread attention in the 1990's, largely due to the prevalence of HIV -- the AIDS-causing virus. More than a century ago, doctors discovered that microorganisms cause infection and can result in serious complications during surgical procedures.

In 1865, Dr. Joseph Lister applied bacterial research done by Louis Pasteur to institute antiseptic (germ-killing) techniques during surgery. Contributions by other physicians -- namely Ignaz Semmelweiss and Oliver Wendell Holmes -- determined that bacterial contamination of the hands and clothing worn by doctors could be transferred from patient to patient. These physicians pioneered new approaches to preventing post-surgical infections, such as hand washing and changing into clean clothing before surgery. These seemingly basic precautions set the underpinning for infection-control procedures commonly used in health care today.

Germs are responsible for a wide variety of diseases. Common infectious diseases caused by blood, saliva, or in airborne droplets include the common cold, the Rhino virus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, herpes, hepatitis B and HIV. Dentists and their staffs take many precautions to prevent the spread of infection from themselves to the patient and vice versa.

Dentists shield their patients and themselves from infections by using what is known as universal precautions. The philosophy of universal precautions assumes that any person who comes into a dental office for treatment is potentially infectious. With this in mind, dentists wash their hands before and after each patient is seen, use a new pair of gloves for each patient, wear clean protective gowns during treatment, and put on masks and protective eyewear. During treatment, high evacuation suction is used, barriers are placed in the patient's mouth to isolate the area treated, and sharp instruments (needles and scalpels) are discarded into special medical waste containers after a single use.

Before the next patient is seated, all surfaces within the treatment area are disinfected, and new plastic barriers are placed on equipment to protect surfaces used for patient care during treatment. Many items used during routine dental care (e.g. gauze, cotton rolls, bibs, cups and saliva ejectors) are disposable and used once per patient. Instruments that are not disposable (e.g. mouth mirrors, curettes and extraction forceps) are sterilized using either steam under pressure (autoclave), dry heat, chemical vapor or ethylene oxide gas. Likewise, dental drills and waterlines undergo rigorous sterilization procedures. These methods effectively kill all forms of microorganisms, including viruses, bacteria, fungi and spores.

Universal precautions and rigorous implementation of infection control protocol have drastically reduced the possibility of contacting any infection in the dental office. So now when you see your dentist, dental hygienist or dental assistant approach you with protective gloves, masks and glasses, you'll know it's nothing personal -- it's to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

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