As an assistant professor at University of Bridgeport’s Fones School of Dental Hygiene, I have come to realize that few people really understand what a dental hygienist does. Patients and students alike are often mystified by what we can determine just by observing a patient’s oral cavity.
The tongue is, in fact, a key examination site in traditional Chinese medicine. Doctors can determine myriad ailments by looking at the tongue’s surface; the shape, as well as coatings of various colors, can be indications of certain illnesses or conditions.
In my profession, patients are often surprised by the things I notice about them, just from an intraoral examination. Dental hygienists can tell whether you breathe through your nose or your mouth, either all of the time or just when sleeping. We can deduce what habits you have — or may have had as a child: grinding your teeth, clenching, biting your nails, thumb sucking, and sometimes whether you had orthodontic treatment.
Other pieces of information hygienists can discern include:
- What type of diet you might have
- Habits like sucking on lemons or chewing ice
- Whether you have tried the newest weight loss fads, like a shot of apple cider vinegar early in the morning
- If you are right or left handed
- How vigorously or lightly you brush your teeth
- Your risk of heart or respiratory disease, digestive issues, or undetected problems with your endocrine system
The reason we can tell all these wonderful things about you is because of our basic dental hygiene education. We often hear that the mouth is a doorway to the entire body, and we in the dental world couldn’t agree more. We are “preventative practitioners,” taught not just to treat diseases of the mouth but to observe and educate our patients as well.
We are taught pharmacology in the same way nursing students learn about medications. We learn every aspect of head and neck anatomy and how to deliver pain control such as local anesthesia, which is a great responsibility. We study anatomy and physiology, cranial nerves, pathology and multiple diseases, disorders, and conditions to look out for. We are taught the physics of radiology and the importance of a radiographic assessment, microbiology, histology and embryology, pathology, nutrition, ethics, public/community health, as well as pain management techniques.
Dental hygiene is a healthcare profession rooted in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines that are guiding our students’ career options today. The educational track for dental hygienists is rigorous, extensive — and amazing!
A career in dental hygiene can take you just about anywhere, if you know where to look. There are avenues to explore such as clinical, research and development, forensics, public health, administration, sales, advocacy, and education. Dental hygiene is so much more than just “cleaning teeth”; if you are interested we can teach you, too. There are endless opportunities in our profession!
Amanda Sargent, MSDH, RDH, is an assistant clinical professor in the Fones Dental Hygiene program at University of Bridgeport. She teaches Clinical Dental Hygiene to first- and second-year students. A lifelong dental professional, she received her master’s degree from UB Fones in 2019. She is an avid reader and a weekend day tripper since moving to Connecticut from New Jersey to join the UB team.