Airmen urged to maintain healthy dental habits during COVID-19 pandemic

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

Teeth Grinding & Clenching

  • During the day, be mindful if you are grinding or clenching your teeth. If you notice your teeth are touching during the day, it could be an indication of clenching and grinding. 
  • If you wake up in the morning with a sore jaw or joint, it could be an indication of teeth grinding or clenching at night.
  • Stress reduction and relaxation strategies can be effective in preventing teeth grinding or clenching.  
  • If the problem persists, patients should call their dental clinic as continued grinding and clenching can cause negative oral health concerns – temporomandibular joint pain (TMJ), tooth pain or tooth fracture. 
  • Contact your dental clinic about teeth grinding and clenching concerns. Patients experiencing severe pain as the result of teeth grinding or clenching qualifies as an emergent need at our dental clinics. 
  • Mouth guards should come from your dentist. Over-the-counter or store-bought mouth guards can make joint pain worse if they are not adjusted by a dentist.
March, the U.S. Air Force began deferring routine and non-urgent dental care to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In alignment with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Dental Association and Department of Defense policies, most dental care has been deferred, with the exception of emergencies, cases considered medically necessary, and care for deploying and deployed personnel.

“Deferring non-urgent dental care is one way we can decrease the chances of spreading COVID-19, while ensuring the health and readiness of our Airmen,” said Col. Donald Sheets, Air Force Dental Policy and Operations chief. “We are still recommending continuing dental exams for active duty Airmen preparing to deploy to ensure they are ready to go out the door. Commanders at all levels are empowered to make the necessary assessments and determine if dental care is critical to the unit mission.”

Because the Air Force maintains robust annual medical readiness requirements for its members, the active duty population entered deferred dental operations in good dental health. Sheets stresses the importance of dental health upkeep during this pause on routine care.

“Our Airmen get seen every year and usually require very little dental care,” said Sheets. “It is vital that Airmen and their families continue practicing good dental habits and eating a healthy, low sugar diet to maintain their oral health.”

While Airmen are aware of proper brushing and flossing techniques, Sheets says Airmen may not be aware of how stress can affect dental health. This is especially important as state governments and the DoD continue implementing social distancing and stay-at-home measures.

“In times of stress, people often clench and grind their teeth, or what is also known as parafunction,” said Sheets. “Patients should be aware if they are experiencing increased stress and take steps ensure that they are not negatively impacting their oral health.”

Sheets suggests that those who are overcome with stress reach out to their health care provider and take advantage of telehealth services. Additionally, the dental clinic is also available via phone if a patient needs additional guidance.

“Our clinics are staffed and Airmen can call their clinics to speak to someone if they have a dental issue without having to physically come into the clinic,” said Sheets. “We can speak to Airmen about preventive measures, discuss home care, and give them guidance on safely coming into the clinic if it is absolutely necessary.”

For Airmen who require emergency or deployment-related dental care, Sheets explains that significant precautions are taken to ensure the safety of medical personnel and patients.

“Any time a patient enters a military treatment facility, there is a screening process to assess risk for exposure to COVID-19,” said Sheets. “The dental team checks if a patient knows they have COVID-19 or associated symptoms. We also know that a patient can be asymptomatic, so we employ personal protective equipment, and follow CDC and the ADA safety guidelines on providing care during this pandemic.”

Air Force Dental Service medics are vital to preparing Airmen readiness so they can perform their mission at home and abroad, said Sheets.

“Our primary goal is to keep everyone safe while maintaining mission-essential readiness requirements,” said Sheets. “Moving forward, we are looking at how to reinstate routine care as the response to COVID-19 allows. It is our job to ensure the oral health of our service members and ensure they are ready to support the mission.”