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Dental Hygienists - What They Do


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 and ultrasonic devices are used to clean and polish teeth, which includes removing tartar, stains, and plaque. Hygienists use x-ray machines to take dental pictures, and sometimes develop the film. They may use models of teeth to explain oral hygiene, perform root planning as a periodontal therapy, or apply cavity-preventative agents such as fluorides and pit and fissure sealants.

Other tasks hygienists may 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 may explain the relationship between diet and oral health or inform patients 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-lighted 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 2 or 3 days a week, so hygienists may hold jobs in more than one dental office. In 2008, about half of all dental hygienists worked part timeóless than 35 hours a week.

Education & Training Required
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 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.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)
Dental hygienists must be licensed by the State in which they practice. Nearly all States require candidates to graduate from an accredited dental hygiene school and pass both a written and clinical examination. The American Dental Association's (ADA) Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations administers the written examination, which is accepted by all States and the District of Columbia. State or regional testing agencies administer the clinical examination. In addition, most States require an examination on the legal aspects of dental hygiene practice. Alabama is the only State that does not require candidates to take the ADA written exam. Instead, they require that candidates meet the requirements of the Alabama Dental Hygiene Program, which mandates taking courses, completing on-the-job training at a dentistís office, and passing a separate State administered licensing examination.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Dental hygienists should work well with others because they work closely with dentists and dental assistants, as well as dealing directly with patients. Hygienists also need good manual dexterity, because they use dental instruments within patientsí mouths, with little room for error.

Dental Hygienists - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Dental Hygiene
A dental hygienist is a licensed dental auxiliary who specializes in preventive dental care, typically but not limited to focusing on techniques in oral hygiene . Local dental regulations determine the duties hygienists are able to perform. In most jurisdictions, hygienists work for a dentist, and are ...more