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Visiting the dentist isn’t typically something that many people look forward to with excitement. Between the poking, prodding and whiz of the drill, it’s not exactly a soothing experience. But when someone says that they’re afraid of the dentist, what does it mean?

Being afraid of the dentist can mean different things to different people depending on whether they have dental anxiety or dental phobia. Think about something you’re afraid of. Maybe it’s spiders, mice, heights, flying, or anything else that comes to mind. When you envision what you’re afraid of, do you feel nervous and uneasy, or do you feel an overwhelming sense of fear and physical symptoms as well? That’s the difference between dental anxiety and dental phobia, although the two terms are often used interchangeably.

What is dental phobia?

Dental phobia, also known as odontophobia or dentophobia, is a more severe than dental anxiety. Like all phobias, dental phobia is classified as a mental disorder.American Psychological Association spokesman R. Reid Wilson, Ph.D., says, "Phobias involve the experience of persistent fear that is excessive and unreasonable." Wilson goes on to explain that a key differentiator of a phobia is that it causes some degree of physical or psychological impairment or both.

If you suffer from either dental anxiety or dental phobia, you mayprefer to avoid the dentist altogether. As tempting as that sounds,it isn’t a long term plan or advisable. Neglecting your oral health gives minor dental issues the chance to become major concerns, which can lead to more expensive and extensive dental work needing to be performed.

How to reduce dental anxiety

Keep in mind that you’re not the first person, and you won’t be the last, who is uneasy about going to the dentist. To put it in perspective, Delta Dental reports that “an estimated 40 million Americans avoid the dentist because of fear and anxiety.” If this is you, be upfront with your dentist about your fears so that they can accommodate your needs and make you feel more at ease.

Ask yourself what part of going to the dentist makes you uneasy. Is it that you aren’t comfortable with your dentist because you haven’t established trust with them? If so, ask a close friend or family member for a referral. Going to a dentist who has treated someone dear to you with care could help ease your nerves. Or perhaps it’s the sights and sounds at the dentist office that overwhelms you. If the sights bother you, ask your dentist to explain what each instrument is, and how and when it will be used. If it’s the sounds that bother you, bring a pair of headphones so you can listen to music on your smartphone.

If you believe you have dental phobia or severe dental anxiety that prohibits you from seeing the dentist, seek the advice of a professional to help you work through it.

Dental anxiety in kids

Dental anxiety can also happen in children. If your child is fearful of the dentist, there are some things you can do to make them feel more comfortable. Reading children’s books on the topic or playing dentist at home can make them feel more familiar with what’s going on. You can also take them with you to your next dental checkup, so they can see for themselves what to expect. Additionally, consider making your child’s appointment with a pediatric dentist, which is a dentist who caters to infants and children.

Scared of the dentist but need treatment

Generally speaking, dental checkups are recommended once every six months. If you haven’t been to the dentist within the last six months or longer, get an appointment on the books. Let the dental staff know in advance about your dental anxiety or dental phobia, so that they can specially prepare for your visit.

If the cost of going to the dentist also gives you an uneasy feeling, checkout the dental savings plans available in your area. A dental savings plan is an affordable way to get the dental care you need and allows you to save between 10% and 60% on most dental services. Plus, dental savings plans don’t have waiting periods or annual spending limits. That means you can take advantage of your plan’s perks right away, and you can use your plan as often as you need to and always receive a discount on your dental care.

Whatever your reason, if you’re scared of the dentist but need treatment, voice your concerns sooner rather than later. You, your dentist, and any other necessary medical professionals can put together a plan of action that will allow you to get the dental care you need in a way that is comfortable for you.

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