How to Avoid a Dental Nightmare

I’m in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the novacaine to take effect. My dentist’s receptionist doodles a smiling tooth with a black hole above its eyes on my chart. He says—as if he’s talking to a five-year-old—that the happy tooth needs help.

“It’s tooth number four,” I interrupt him. “I need an onlay.”

He stops drawing.

“I’ve had two root canals, deep cleanings, regular cleanings and like a dozen cavities,” I say. “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

I see my Los Angeles-based dentist more than I see my mother who lives in Hawaii. I’ve had so much dental work in my life that I know all the jargon, including each tooth’s number. Six years ago, I had my first root canal on tooth No. 15. The price tag, with dental coverage, was about $1,200. After that, I went off to college, graduated and couldn’t afford health insurance. My oral health declined.

Last year, a bag of pus formed above tooth No. 11, the upper left canine. I needed $1,400 worth of surgery. That was my second root canal. For a week, I battled flu-like symptoms from the infection. I avoided the dentist because, well, who likes the dentist? Even with health insurance, my reporter’s salary didn’t leave me with a surplus fund for expensive dental procedures.

You wouldn’t know that my oral health sucks by looking at my teeth. “They’re so white and straight,” people say all the time. I’ve never had braces. I floss daily and brush twice a day. But I have weak teeth. Dentists scoff in disgust upon hearing that I didn’t get fluoride treatments. My hippie mother feared fluoride caused cancer, so she refused the treatments when I was a child. Even though I grew up as a vegetarian and didn’t eat candy, I developed cavities in my baby teeth. I’ve learned a lot from my many trips to dentists, which can help others with weak teeth.

Here are some tips my dentists have given to me:

A healthy diet = good oral health. Dentists preach about avoiding soda and candy. They act like we all pack our molars with Tootsie Rolls and rinse with Mountain Dew before bed every night. But if you’re eating pounds of candy daily, chances are that it’s contributing to your bad teeth, so stop.

Use ReCaldent. This topical calcium phosphate mousse changed my life. I hadn’t heard of it until after two root canals. It’s about $25. My dental hygienist recommended that I use ReCaldent, which is created from a protein found in cow’s milk. Since then, I haven’t had any new cavities.

Seal it. Not until adulthood did I hear the words: molar sealant. If you’re a parent, please ask your dentist about sealants for your children. It’s a coating applied to prevent decay.

Find cheap or free dental care. Sure, you can floss daily and brush twice a day, but if you can’t afford dental care, you’re missing out on preventative and treatment services. You can visit a dental quack and get your rotten teeth extracted, or you can check out dental schools at colleges or free clinics in your area. There will likely be a waiting list, but the dental fees are often on a sliding scale or free.

Be an A-plus dental patient. Dentists recommend six-month cleanings and check ups. Always a teacher’s pet, I prefer to schedule cleanings every three months.

Blame Genetics. Thank ma and pa for your rotten choppers. Not everyone agrees that bad teeth are hereditary. But blaming others for your problems makes you feel better. Try it.


Nalea J. Ko is a L.A.-based writer, reporter and badass collage maker. She was born and raised in Hawaii, where she was used as weekend labor on her father’s taro and banana farm. She’s currently working through her bitterness in therapy.


17 Comments / Post A Comment

Belladatura (#1,888)

“Moral sealant” = I need this.

goldstar (#1,819)

I moved to LA recently (and by that, I mean over a year ago) and haven’t seen a dentist yet. Recommend yours please!

@goldstar Welcome to LA! I’ll give you a hint, my dentist is on Sunset Blvd and has a mezuzah on the door.

NoReally (#45)

Oregon is fighting about fluoridation again, right now. Dentists in Portland love to look in people’s mouth and say, “Ah, I can tell you didn’t grow up in Oregon. Your teeth are much better than we see in natives.”

sintaxis (#2,363)

@NoReally “but what about the beeeer?!” Haha, I just moved to Oregon and the fluoridation debate caused a little bit of culture shock, tbh.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@NoReally I am so glad for flouridised water in my state! I still boil all my water before drinking, though – my house was built in the 20’s and that means the pipes would be all kinds of funked-up by now (90 years later I cannot pretend that they would be pristine).

theotherginger (#1,304)

@NoReally that is hilarious. A city near mine in Ontario doesn’t have fluoride, but all I have to do is look at my dad, who had zero dental care as a child, and his teeth to thank the gods of the municipality for no root canals… yet..

And you can do all those things and still spend $3,000 on dental work that isn’t covered by insurance because “bridgework is cheaper, even though it doesn’t last as long, so insurance companies don’t cover implants.”

On the plus side, my teeth are super straight because my parents shelled out big bucks for a fabulous orthodontist when I was a kid.

I’m surprised your dentist didn’t explain the benefits of rain water and pure grain alcohol.

ThatJenn (#916)

Hey Mike Dang, did you hear the part about going to the dentist regularly? :)

Wow I don’t know how I missed this yesterday.

I should look into this recaldent. It’s what, gum? I can chew gum. Sure.

I don’t think I got my teeth cleaned once while I was in university (okay maybe ONCE). Not having a dentist in my university city + fear of dentists + even bigger fear of cavities = procrastination forever.

Also = one root canal because I didn’t get tooth pain taken care of for over a year. For over a year I would go to work/school every day with a throbbing pain in the back of my mouth which was somehow less awful than just going to a damn dentist. I used to do things like hold scalding hot water in my mouth to help with the pain. And of course daily painkiller use. HOW IS THIS BETTER THAN GOING TO A DENTIST AND HAVING ONE HOUR OF PAIN AND THEN IT’S GONE.

Anyway by the time the pain got so bad that I really had no choice, the tooth was abcessed, the novocaine wouldn’t work, and … yeah it was painful.

The most hilarious part of this story is that another cavity was festering on the other side of my mouth, large enough that I could poke my tongue into it and shit would get lost up there. Having learned absolutely nothing from the previous experience, I also let this one get worse for months and months before having it taken care of. Order up another root canal for that one.

the rest is pretty standard. We took care of my outstanding cavities in quadrants, four brutally long but comparatively painless visits.

And I get my teeth cleaned every 9 months. And brush twice a day, floss every day. I’m not perfect but much better.

Good ol dentist stories.

bucica (#5,640)

Dr Fox advices me to stop smoking because it very harmful for tooth enamel and especially the gums. It was harder to stop smoking than I thought but I did it, now my teeth are whiter and I noticed there is no plaque buildup on my teeth.

grumpelstiltskin (#2,622)

I experienced the absolute worst pain of my life several months ago as a result of not seeing a dentist in forever. Gum issues are no joke and really something one doesn’t want to mess around with. The advice here is solid, I’d also add: don’t smoke. Apparently smoking does a number on your gums.

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normanhirsch (#6,445)

When I was little my parents taught me that it`s better to visit the dentist regularly and this is the best method to avoid any dental nightmare, I was very lucky because they took me to the Nofeardentist that was very careful and explained every action he made. At a certain point I liked going to the dentist because I knew I can trust him and he will make sure I won`t have any teeth problems.

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