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Healthy for life: Oral health

Taking care of your teeth (and the rest of your mouth) is an important part of your overall health. Here’s how you can do it — and how your insurance can help.

  1. Why is your oral health important?
  2. Is dental care covered by your insurance?
  3. How does dental insurance work?
  4. What are common oral health problems?
  5. What types of doctors treat oral health?
  6. What can you do to maintain good oral health?
  7. Why are dental visits important?
  8. How can you keep your child’s teeth healthy?

When your mouth and teeth are in good shape, you can eat right and speak clearly. And that’s a reason to smile. It might not be something you think about on a daily basis, but your mouth is an important part of the body, and having a healthy one is good for your overall health.

The opposite is true too. When your teeth and mouth have problems, your physical health can suffer. Read on to learn how you can take care of your oral health.

Why is your oral health important?

“Your oral health is good for your overall general health,” says Jessica Pharar, D.M.D. She’s a dentist with Drs. Chin and Pharar Dentistry in Las Vegas and the founder of the Pharar Foundation. “When you really think about it, the mouth is the main source of things entering your body on a day-to-day basis.”

What’s more, oral health problems can alert your dentist to bigger issues. Dentists can notice problems patients didn’t know they had. For example, there’s a strong link between your heart health and oral health, notes Olga Krikunenko, D.M.D. She’s a dentist and owner of Mint Dental of Franklin, in Massachusetts. She adds that breathing issues can also stem from problems with your jaw and skull.

Is dental care covered by your insurance?

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), dental care is not considered an essential health benefit. As a result, health insurance — including Original Medicare — doesn’t usually cover dental services for adults. But dental care is considered an essential health benefit for kids. So dental care for kids under 19 will be covered by an ACA plan.

To get dental coverage as an adult, you’ll need a separate dental insurance plan. There are a few ways you can get dental insurance:

  • If you’re buying individual health insurance, some plans may include dental coverage. Or you can shop for a separate dental plan while you are shopping for a health plan. You can also call a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 to help you find health and dental coverage.
  • If you get insurance through your employer, they may offer dental coverage as well. Talk to your benefits manager for details.
  • If your plan does not include dental coverage, you can shop for a supplemental dental plan directly from an insurance provider. For example, you can buy a UnitedHealthcare-branded dental plan online. A licensed insurance agent can also help you shop for dental and other supplemental coverage. Call one today at 1-844-211-7730. You may be able to buy a dental plan with another type of supplemental coverage, like vision insurance.

How does dental insurance work?

As with health insurance, you’ll pay a premium each month for a dental plan. When you receive care, you pay a copay or coinsurance. (A copay is a fixed amount; coinsurance is a percentage of the total cost.) Your plan might also have a deductible. That’s the amount you must pay out of pocket before the plan starts paying. Some plans also have a cap on how much the plan will pay each policy year or calendar year.

Dental plans typically cover 3 levels of dental care:

  • Preventive care, including routine cleanings and exams
  • Basic services, including simple fillings and extractions
  • Major services, including crowns, root canals, oral surgery and bridges

Some plans don’t cover basic or major services. Others do, but only after a waiting period. Be sure to read the fine print.

An alternative to dental insurance is a dental discount plan. By paying a membership fee, you get discounts on dental services. Some may offer free preventive care, too.

Looking for dental coverage for the basics, such as regular cleanings, exams and the occasional filling? Call a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 to discuss your options, or shop for dental plans today.

What are common oral health problems?

Cavities (tooth decay) may be the first problem you think of when it comes to oral health, but they’re not the only problem that can develop in and around your mouth.

Here are 4 common problems:

  • Cavities: The plaque that builds up on your teeth contains acids that can eat away at your teeth, creating small holes. Cavities happen especially on chewing surfaces and near the gumline. More than 90% of adults have had a cavity, and so have more than half of all kids.

    Dentists can treat cavities with fillings. They remove the damaged tooth tissue and fill it in with a filling material. Left untreated, cavities can lead to severe infections and even, in rare cases, death. Yet they are largely preventable if you take care of your teeth and drink fluoridated water. Fluoride is a mineral added to tap water that prevents tooth decay.

  • Gum (periodontal) disease: Gum disease happens when the gums become inflamed. Eventually, it can damage the support structures around the teeth, putting the teeth at risk. In fact, gum disease is the main cause of tooth loss. Nearly half of adults ages 30 and up experience gum disease. Causes may include poor oral hygiene, tobacco use, diabetes and a weakened immune system. Gum diseases can be prevented and managed with good oral hygiene, such as brushing and flossing regularly.

  • Tooth loss: More than a quarter of adults ages 65 and up suffer severe tooth loss, meaning they have no more than 8 teeth left. That reduces their quality of life and their ability to eat meat, fruit and vegetables. As noted above, gum disease is the biggest cause of tooth loss. Other risk factors include smoking and chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, emphysema, heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Cancer: Oral cancer can develop in the tongue, gums and oropharynx (the part of the throat just behind the mouth). Each year, about 53,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer. Smoking and excess alcohol use are the biggest risk factors. Those who both smoke and drink heavily are 5 to 14 times more likely to get oral cancer. Infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease, also increases the risk of oral cancer 15-fold. HPV is the same virus that can cause cervical cancer in women.

What types of doctors treat oral health?

The most important person on your oral health team is your dentist. That’s who you’ll see for regular cleanings and exams. Dentists also handle basic services such as fillings for cavities and simple tooth extractions.

For more serious problems, you may need to see a specialist. Dental specialists have completed additional training on a particular area of the mouth. Here are a few examples:

  • Orthodontists help kids (and many adults) get their teeth lined up. Braces and invisible teeth aligners give you a better smile, of course, and they can also make it easier to speak and eat.

  • Endodontists treat the soft tissue inside the teeth. If you have a badly infected tooth, an endodontist may perform a root canal to remove and replace the infected tissue.

  • Periodontists treat problems with the gums, especially periodontitis, which is the most serious form of gum disease. It can damage the tissue that supports your teeth and lead to tooth loss. (The more common form is gingivitis, which is milder inflammation of the gums.)

  • Oral surgeons (more properly called oral and maxillofacial surgeons) handle surgeries related to the mouth, face and jaw. That could include everything from removing wisdom teeth to reconstructing someone’s jaw after an accident.

What can you do to maintain good oral health?

Good oral health depends both on what your dentist does for you and what you do for yourself. “You go see your dentist maybe every 3 months or 6 months, but really what matters is that consistency of what you’re doing at home every day,” Dr. Pharar says. (Plus, dental plans typically cover visits every 6 months. So it makes sense to use your coverage regularly.)

And that means practicing good oral hygiene, which simply means taking steps to keep your mouth free of disease. “Proper home care with electric toothbrush use, flossing regularly and using fluoride toothpaste are all great baseline tactics to keep your teeth and gums healthy,” Dr. Krikunenko says.

Brushing your teeth removes the plaque that builds up on your teeth, while flossing gets between the teeth. Dr. Pharar recommends brushing twice a day — for 2 minutes at a time — and flossing once. Today, you have several options for flossing, including traditional dental floss, floss picks and water flossers.

“I’m not as particular as to how you floss, as long as something’s getting in between there,” Dr. Pharar says.

It’s also a good idea to address risk factors that can endanger your teeth and gums. Avoid tobacco, limit alcohol and carbonated beverages and follow a healthy diet. If you suffer from dry mouth, sip water or chew sugarless gum to keep your mouth moist.

Finally, see your dentist at least once or twice a year. “Regular checkups with your dentist are important so we can avoid lengthy and pricey treatment and catch problems while they are small and manageable,” Dr. Krikunenko says. Many dental insurance plans cover up to 2 routine cleanings a year.

Ready to explore insurance plans where you live?

Why are dental visits important?

No matter how well you brush and floss, you won’t get your teeth as clean as a dental hygienist does. You can feel the difference when you leave the office.

What’s more, says Dr. Pharar, “they’ll usually educate you if there’s areas that they feel like you can do better about cleaning, and show you how to do that.”

But dental visits are also an important way to spot bigger problems with both your oral health and your overall health. Each visit begins with a review of your health history, which can alert your dentist that you are at higher risk of problems such as gum disease.

“During a dental examination, the dentist will review your medical and health history, evaluate the tissue inside and outside the oral cavity, and check your teeth for decay and gums for bone loss,” Dr. Krikunenko says. Dentists also look at your jaw muscles, lips and lower part of the face in general to check for any problems.

How can you keep your child’s teeth healthy?

Your child’s teeth and gums need the same care as yours do. You’ll need to start brushing your baby’s teeth as soon as they start coming in. And you’ll also want to help older kids brush their teeth to make sure they do a thorough job.

“Parents should help their kids clean their mouth all the way to about the age of 10,” Dr. Pharar says. “It’s a lot older than you would expect.”

One way to motivate kids to brush their teeth? “Use a special mouth rinse that stains their plaque a color. Then kids can make sure they clean off all the ‘sugar bugs’ when they are brushing and flossing their teeth,” recommends Dr. Krikunenko.

You don’t have to worry as much about flossing with young children, says Dr. Pharar. That’s because a toothbrush can usually get into spaces between normally spaced baby teeth. Ask your dentist for flossing advice for young children.

You might think that taking care of baby teeth isn’t as important. After all, they do fall out eventually. But Dr. Pharar warns that dental hygiene is still important for kids with baby teeth. “If a baby tooth gets too infected, it can affect the adult tooth,” she says.

Schedule a dental visit as soon as your child’s baby teeth start coming in. And continue going every 6 months, says Dr. Krikunenko. Going regularly lets your dentist check for cavities and make sure adult teeth are coming in well. Addressing problems while your children are still young and growing can save them from a lot of problems when they get older, Dr. Krikunenko adds.

Need a dental plan? Contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730, or enter your zip code to search available plans.


For informational purposes only. This information is compiled by UnitedHealthcare and does not diagnose problems or recommend specific treatment. Services and medical technologies referenced herein may not be covered under your plan. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Children’s Oral Health.” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Gum Disease.” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Oral Health Conditions.” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Tooth Loss.” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “What Can Adults Do to Maintain Good Oral Health?” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023 “Dental Coverage in the Marketplace.” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023 “Medicare Advantage Plans Cover All Medicare Services.” Accessed April 30, 2023

National Cancer Institute. “Oral Cavity, Oropharyngeal, Hypopharyngeal, and Laryngeal Cancers Prevention (PDQ®)–Patient Version.” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. “Oral Cancer.” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023

National Institute on Aging. “Taking Care of Your Teeth and Mouth.” Retrieved from Accessed April 30, 2023

University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. “Department of Endodontics” Retrieved from Accessed March 31, 2023

University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. “Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.” Retrieved from Accessed March 31, 2023

University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. “Department of Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics” Retrieved from Accessed March 31, 2023

University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. “Periodontics and Preventive Dentistry.” Retrieved from Accessed March 31, 2023

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