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.