Dental Exams and Teeth Cleanings for Adults

Evidence Based
NewMouth is reader supported. We may earn a commission if you purchase something using one of our links.

What Happens During Dental Exams and Teeth Cleanings?

The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that adults visit a dentist for regular exams and teeth cleanings at least twice a year (every six months). During dental exams, a dentist or dental hygienist examines the mouth for cavities, gum disease, or other related conditions. If a patient has cavities, they will typically schedule another appointment to have fillings placed. Dental hygienists also professionally clean the patient’s teeth using fluoride, gritty pastes, and mouthwash.

X-rays and other imaging are commonly used, depending on the patient’s age, oral health standing, and history. Diet, nutrition, and oral hygiene habits are also discussed during dental exams.

For patients with artificial teeth, such as implants or dentures, it is still important to schedule regular teeth cleanings to ensure the replacement teeth and supporting tissues are healthy.

Diagnostic Services

Many oral conditions and diseases do not have obvious warning signs. During an exam, a dentist uses diagnostics to detect hidden diseases and damage early on. This includes oral cancer screenings, x-rays, and gingivitis screenings.

X-rays and Other Images

Dentists use X-rays to aid in the diagnosis of disease or damage that is not visible during a visual dental exam. X-rays or radiographs are typically taken during a routine exam (once a year), but how often they are taken depends on the patient’s age, oral health standing, and risk for disease.

dental xray

Oral Cancer Screenings

Oral cancer begins with the development of abnormal carcinoma cells and results in the growth of cancerous lesions. This type of cancer can develop in the mouth, cheeks, gums, tongue, lips, palate, sinuses, throat, or the mouth’s floor. The diseases are life-threatening if they aren’t treated early. Oral cancer screenings should be done at least once a year on every patient.

Gingivitis Screenings

Gingivitis, also referred to as mild gum disease, occurs when the gums become inflamed. In gingivitis, the damage is reversible and the supporting structures of teeth, such as bones, are not permanently lost. More than half of American adults are affected by gingivitis and the prevalence is even higher as people age. Since the disease is very common, dentists screen every patient for early signs of gingivitis or periodontal disease (severe gum disease) during dental exams.

teeth with plaque and gum disease signs

Preventive Services

Preventive dentistry focuses on good oral hygiene practices in order to keep the mouth healthy throughout life. These services protect teeth from decay, prevent gum disease, and strengthen teeth.

Plaque and Tartar Removal

Brushing and flossing regularly removes most plaque buildup on teeth, but not all of the bacteria can be removed at home with a normal toothbrush. During professional teeth cleanings, a dentist or dental hygienist uses small instruments to completely remove plaque and tartar on the surfaces of teeth and between teeth. This type of treatment is also referred to as “scaling.”

Expert Flossing, Brushing, and Stain Removal

After teeth are scaled, a dentist or dental hygienist typically polish them using a gritty paste. This treatment removes any surface stains on the teeth, leaving a shiny, highly polished tooth surface that resists the buildup of plaque. The dentist also flosses between the teeth to ensure they are completely clean.

Discount dental plans could save you more than insurance.

Learn More


Sealants may be applied if a patient has a high risk of developing dental caries. If cavities are already present, fillings or crowns may be needed (restorative treatment).

Fluoride Treatment

Fluoride is a natural mineral that is used to prevent cavities and strengthen teeth. It also supports healthy tooth enamel, fights bacteria, and protects teeth from damage. During a dental exam and cleaning, fluoride may be applied to the teeth in a highly concentrated gel, foam, or varnish. After a gel or foam is applied, any foods or drinks should be avoided for 30 minutes. If a varnish is applied, foods and drinks do not need to be avoided.

Educational Services

In addition to preventive and diagnostic services, dentists and dental hygienists also educate patients about oral hygiene best practices, nutrition, and future treatment evaluations.

Brushing and Flossing Tips

Brushing twice a day, flossing every day, and rinsing with mouthwash regularly are essential for cavity prevention. Visiting the dentist every six months for teeth cleanings and x-rays is also essential. Doing so allows dentists to catch cavities early and prevent further decay with treatment.

Nutrition Counseling

The primary cause of cavities is from foods and drinks high in sugar, including fruit juices and candy. White starches, such as pasta, bread, chips, and crackers can even cause cavities over time due to their high carbohydrate levels (sugars). Mouth bacteria feed off of simple sugars, which eventually converts into acid plaque.

Future Treatment Evaluation

After treatment is complete, the dentist will talk to the patient about follow-up appointments, including when to return for the next hygiene treatment, periodontal (gum) treatment, or restorative options.

Save 10-60% on dental care with a Dental Savings Plan at

Updated on: September 1, 2020
Alyssa Hill
Medically Reviewed: September 16, 2019
Photo of Lara Coseo
Lara Coseo