Overall, people in both Canada and the United States place a high value on oral health.
During various times of economic crisis, dental practices have continued to prosper even though other industries have struggled ‒ because patients have many reasons to continue seeing their dentist.
In their minds, there are simply too many pitfalls of neglecting dental care to suddenly avoid the dentist's chair. Plus, dentists offer plenty of leeway to financially strapped patients where possible.
Then came the pandemic in 2020, which changed everything.
Suddenly, many patients believed that just visiting a dental clinic would put their health at risk. Clinics closed their doors across North America, and when they finally reopened, dentists began spending their days trying to book appointments instead of providing patients with essential care.
Now, after a year and a half of mulling over solutions, the dental industry figured out the root of the problem: aerosol management.
The Danger of Aerosols in a Clinical Environment
High-speed dental instruments, handpieces, ultrasonic scalers, and three-way syringes create aerosols that stay suspended in a clinical environment.
Here are a couple of specific examples of how aerosol production occurs:
- Using a drill for fillings necessitates spraying water to prepare the tooth. Upon contacting the tooth, the sprayed water jettisons back into the air along with the bacteria in the patient’s mouth, ending up suspended in the air.
- Throughout the standard cleaning process, ultrasonic scalers spray water which removes plaque but creates aerosols.
With this in mind, it’s unsurprising to hear that research points to COVID-19 being transmitted through aerosols.
But before getting too ahead of ourselves, we’ll point out that COVID-19 cases have been few and far between in dental offices.
All the same, the risk is real. And, if practitioners aren’t careful, the aerosols might spread viral bacteria throughout the treatment space, leading to cross-contamination. From there, the entire surrounding community could be at risk.
For the above reasons, vigilant aerosol management is at the heart of creating a safe environment for patients and staff.
Understanding the Difference Between Aerosol and Splatter Management
For dental practices to uphold the highest safety standards for patients, staff, and the surrounding community, they must differentiate between aerosol and splatter mitigation. Despite the industry gaining more knowledge on this topic throughout the pandemic, some confusion lingers onward.
Splatter involves saliva or blood droplets that spread quickly.
There’s some heft to your typical droplet of splatter. And it’s often visible when landing on surfaces or clothing.
Conversely, airborne aerosols aren’t even a third as thick as a single strand of human hair. And they remain suspended in the air much longer than splatter, making them much more of a risk to spread viruses and bacteria.
Because of these crucial differences, prevention methods for splatter and aerosol can’t be treated as one and the same.
Combining Aerosol and Splatter Mitigation Techniques
PPE measures are the bare minimum of what you can do for splatter and aerosol, but they’re a start nonetheless. The same can be said for air filtration. These are both effective but fail at offsetting the air clearance time between patients.
Unfortunately, aerosols can remain in the air for two hours after a dental procedure. So these two techniques aren’t enough on their own while still entirely necessary. That’s why many dentists are utilizing complete room separation.
The ideal PPE consists of face shields, gloves, and gowns for offsetting splatter. Furthermore, surface disinfectants will further strengthen splatter mitigation.
As for aerosol management, you’ll want to consider the following approaches:
- N95 masks
- Air filtration systems
- Extraoral suction systems position near the patient
Recently, further technological advancements have been made to capture aerosols as they form. The new approach combines extraoral suctioning with a transparent protective screen.
Another method being used by many dentists is the usage of rubber dams during restorative appointments.
A rubber dam is a stretchy material. Depending on where the procedure is done, the dam is meant to cover a patient’s mouth, helping isolate one tooth or several teeth. A barrier is created by this protective equipment, separating the patient’s mouth from the outside environment.
While rubber dams do help with aerosol prevention, they aren’t necessarily meant for all procedures. They’re also not the easiest thing in the world to use. So, here’s a tutorial video in case you need a point of reference.
Communicate Your Changes with Patients and Staff
The peace of mind offered by safety measures goes hand-in-hand with the protection provided. In other words, it’s not enough to keep people safe from the spread of COVID-19; you need to make them feel protected.
Part of that involves transparent communications with your staff and your patients so they can breathe easier.
Also, ensure your team is fully trained on your aerosol management protocols.
Knowledge is power. And your team will benefit tremendously from proper guidance on these new systems.
From there, your practice will be equipped to thrive in a post-COVID world.