Dental hygenist and patient

A dental hygienist could...

Take and develop X-rays of a patient's mouth to help diagnose problems. X-ray of teeth Show people how to brush their teeth properly. Kid brushing teeth
Assist the dentist in performing oral surgery. surgery Teach children what cavities are and why they are bad. Child brushing fake teeth
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Good oral hygiene protects not only teeth and gums, but the whole body, reducing the risk of infections, heart disease, clogged arteries, and stroke. Dental hygienists help prevent and correct dental problems by taking X-rays, examining teeth and gums, removing plaque, polishing teeth, injecting local anesthetics, and assisting with dental procedures. They also play a key role in educating patients about how and when to brush and floss.
Key Requirements Excellent fine motor skills, detail-oriented, works well with others, positive, outgoing, compassionate, with an ability to explain complex ideas in simple language
Minimum Degree Associate's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, geometry, algebra
Median Salary
Dental Hygienist
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%) In Demand!
  • In this article, you will meet Sherri Gollins, and learn how she got started in dentistry, as well as what her typical workday and work environment are like.
Related Occupations
  • Dental assistants
  • Dentists, general
  • Orthodontists
  • Prosthodontists
  • Radiologic technicians
  • Respiratory therapists
  • Surgical technologists
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

A degree from an accredited dental hygiene school and a state license are required for this job.

Education and Training

A high school diploma and college entrance test scores are usually required for admission to a dental hygiene program. High school students interested in becoming dental hygienists should take courses in biology, chemistry, and mathematics. Some dental hygiene programs also require applicants to have completed at least one year of college. Specific entrance requirements typically vary from one school to another.

In 2008, there were 301 dental hygiene programs accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation. Most dental hygiene programs grant an associate degree, although some also offer a certificate, a bachelor's degree, or a master's degree. A minimum of an associate's degree or certificate in dental hygiene is generally required for practice in a private dental office. A bachelor's or master's degree usually is required for research, teaching, or clinical practice in public or school health programs.

Schools offer laboratory, clinical, and classroom instruction in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, nutrition, radiography, histology (the study of tissue structure), periodontology (the study of gum diseases), pathology, dental materials, clinical dental hygiene, and social and behavioral sciences.

Other Qualifications

Dental hygienists should work well with others because they work closely with dentists and dental assistants, as well as deal directly with patients. Hygienists also need good manual dexterity, because they use dental instruments within patients' mouths, with little room for error.

In this video, you will meet public health dental hygienists Cathy Marshall and Paula Morrison. They visit schools to provide dental services to students who might otherwise never have any dental care. Learn about a dental hygienist that doesn't work in a dental office.

Nature of the Work

Dental hygienists remove soft and hard deposits from teeth, teach patients how to practice good oral hygiene, and provide other preventive dental care. They examine patients' teeth and gums, recording the presence of diseases or abnormalities.

Dental hygienists use an assortment of tools to complete their tasks. Hand and rotary instruments, as well as ultrasonic devices, are used to clean and polish teeth, including removing tartar, stains, and plaque. Hygienists use x-ray machines to take dental pictures, and sometimes develop the film. They might use models of teeth to explain oral hygiene, perform root planning as a periodontal therapy, or apply cavity-preventive agents, such as fluorides and pit and fissure sealants.

Other tasks hygienists might perform vary by state. In some states, hygienists are allowed to administer anesthetics, while in others they administer local anesthetics using syringes. Some states also allow hygienists to place and carve filling materials, temporary fillings, and periodontal dressings; remove sutures; and smooth and polish metal restorations.

Dental hygienists also help patients develop and maintain good oral health. For example, they might explain the relationship between diet and oral health or inform patients about how to select toothbrushes and show them how to brush and floss their teeth.

Hygienists sometimes make a diagnosis, and other times, prepare clinical and laboratory diagnostic tests for the dentist to interpret. Hygienists sometimes work chair-side with the dentist during treatment.

Work Environment

Dental hygienists work in clean, well-lit offices. Important health safeguards include strict adherence to proper radiological procedures and the use of appropriate protective devices when administering anesthetic gas. Dental hygienists also wear safety glasses, surgical masks, and gloves to protect themselves and patients from infectious diseases. Dental hygienists also should be careful to avoid possible shoulder and neck injury from sitting for long periods of time while working with patients.

Flexible scheduling is a distinctive feature of this job. Full-time, part-time, evening, and weekend schedules are common. Dentists frequently hire hygienists to work only two or three days a week, so hygienists might hold jobs in more than one dental office. In 2008, about half of all dental hygienists worked part-time—less than 35 hours a week.

On the Job

  • Clean calcareous deposits, accretions, and stains from teeth and beneath margins of gums, using dental instruments.
  • Record and review patient medical histories.
  • Examine gums, using probes, to locate periodontal recessed gums and signs of gum disease.
  • Provide clinical services and health education to improve and maintain the oral health of patients and the general public.
  • Feel and visually examine gums for sores and signs of disease.
  • Expose and develop x-ray film.
  • Chart conditions of decay and disease for diagnosis and treatment by dentist.
  • Maintain dental equipment and sharpen and sterilize dental instruments.
  • Apply fluorides and other cavity preventing agents to arrest dental decay.
  • Feel lymph nodes under patient's chin to detect swelling or tenderness that could indicate presence of oral cancer.
  • Maintain patient recall system.
  • Remove excess cement from coronal surfaces of teeth.
  • Administer local anesthetic agents.
  • Conduct dental health clinics for community groups to augment services of dentist.
  • Remove sutures and dressings.
  • Make impressions for study casts.
  • Place and remove rubber dams, matrices, and temporary restorations.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Dental Hygienists

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Science Fair Project Idea
Did you know that a scientific study has shown that chewing Big Red Gum reduces mouth microbes? (ScienceDaily contributors, 2004) The cinnamon oil in the gum is a natural defense against mouth bacteria that cause tooth decay and bad breath. Conduct an experiment to compare products with cinnamon essence in gum, candy, toothpaste, and mouthwash to see if they can decrease mouth germs. Do a before and after swab of the mouth with a Q-tip. Which treatments work the best? Can you find another… Read more

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