Our guide to dental hygiene
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to dental hygiene

Published December 04 2013

Dental hygienists play a vital role in stopping dental problems before they arise.

They prevent and treat gum disease, scale teeth and polish them, and help patients undergoing surgery or difficult orthodontic treatment. Importantly, dental hygienists show children and adults how to look after their teeth and gums. It is an extremely varied job as no two people – or mouths – are the same.


Where could a dental hygiene course lead?

A course in dental hygiene most naturally leads to a career as a dental hygienist. Most dental hygienists work in general dental practices – the sort of place you probably go when you visit the dentist. They also work in community dental hospitals, clients' homes and general hospitals. In hospitals you might help patients recovering from major surgery or major orthodontic treatment.

The tasks carried out by a dental hygienist range from providing preventative oral care to giving advice on how to stop smoking, from demonstrating good flossing techniques to tooth whitening. You will also scale and polish teeth, apply sealants (a plastic coating to protect teeth) and help patients who have had facial surgery to maintain a healthy mouth. Dental hygienists do not diagnose disease, restore teeth, carry out pulp treatments or extract teeth. That’s the domain of the dentist. If you are an experienced dental hygienist but want to try something new, you could choose to move into teaching dental hygiene.


What do you do on a dental hygiene course?

To practice as a dental hygienist you need to have undertaken a course approved by the General Dental Council (GDC). There are two main routes to qualify as a dental hygienist. First, you could take a two-year Diploma in Dental Hygiene and Therapy. This course is offered by dental schools and the Defence Dental Services Training Establishment. Or second, you could take a university degree in Oral Health Science, which typically takes three years.

Both the diploma and degree courses combine practical work and study of key subjects such as anatomy and physiology, preventive dentistry, dental health education, dental pathology and patient management. Supervised practical placements usually takes place in a dental surgery or hospital.


How can you choose the right dental hygiene course for you?

Entry requirements for dental hygiene courses vary, so make sure that you have the prerequisites required to take the course that you desire. If you are keen to learn a particular skill, like removing stitches or administering gas inhalation, choose a course that provides this opportunity. You could consider a course that combines dental hygiene and dental therapy.


What kind of person do you need to be?

To make the most of a dental hygiene course you must be:

  • Willing to study and continually update your scientific knowledge in areas like human anatomy and oral disease processes.
  • Good with your hands and have sharp eyesight and colour vision.
  • A good communicator so you can explain to clients from a wide-range of backgrounds how they can keep their teeth and gums in top condition.
  • Happy to work as part of a team because dental care teams consist of a diversity of specialists.
  • The kind of person who enjoys plenty of variety and working in different settings.
  • Caring and sympathetic to put children and adults at ease. Don't forget, some of us have a deep-seated fear of going to the dentist (a condition known as dentophobia).


Cheryl McBroom is a dental hygienist. Let's see what she has to say…

Cheryl McBroom told the NHS, “I work as part of a team in a general hospital where I see people who are very ill, depressed and anxious. One of the rewarding parts of the job is being able to spend time talking to them – not just about their treatment, but about their life, their family and so on... The job itself is extremely varied. In the hospital outpatient clinic I see all sorts of patients, from children undergoing orthodontic work to cancer patients who are having chemotherapy and need help to keep their mouths moist, as the treatment can leave them with sore and dry mouths. I was a dental nurse for five years before training to be a hygienist. There are opportunities to continue to learn and develop and I may consider teaching when I am a bit older.”


A quick dental hygiene quiz. See how you do!

  1. Halitosis is the medical term for:

a) black hairy tongue   b) bad breath   c) plaque build up


  1. The best way to prevent gum disease is to:

a) remove plaque   b) use toothpaste with fluoride   c) use mouthwash


  1. What causes tooth decay?

a) age   b) cavaties   c) acid


  1. Which is more important when choosing a toothbrush?

a) a big head to cover all the areas of your mouth  

b) hard bristles  

c) a small head to reach all places in your mouth


  1. What is plaque?

a) the protective coating which naturally occurs on teeth  

b) a whitening substance that makes your teeth shine  

c) a bacteria-containing substance that collects on the surface of teeth


Answers: 1) b   2) a   3) c   4) c   5) c


By Nick Kennedy

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