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A Quick Introduction to Common Dental Terms

Sometimes a visit to the dentist can feel like traveling to a foreign country.

As your oral hygienist and dentist poke through your mouth while conversing about “interproximal” this and “malocclusion” that, it may seem like they’re speaking a language that isn’t known to you. And in some ways, that’s true. Just like any other medical profession, the dental arts include a language all their own.

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That means taking charge of your oral health requires learning at least the basic elements of this language. (Think of it like learning to say “Where is the nearest restroom?” in French before you visit Paris). Knowing basic dental terminology will help you communicate better with your dentist regarding any issues you’re experiencing in your mouth and understand your dentist’s diagnoses. In that spirit, here’s a quick overview of common dental terms.


This term refers to the wear and tear of a tooth’s enamel caused by chewing, teeth grinding, or improper brushing techniques.


An often-painful condition, an abscess results from an infection that makes its way into the center of a tooth or the gum tissue near a tooth’s root. If left untreated, abscesses can escalate into serious infections that result in tooth loss and/or damage to the bone that supports the abscessed tooth.


It’s the rare and lucky dental patient who isn’t familiar with this word, which refers to decay in a tooth.


This is a small cap or cover that’s fitted over a damaged tooth to protect it from further wear and tear. Crowns may cover all or part of the tooth depending on the extent of the damage.

Dental Bridge

This minimally invasive procedure is designed to replace missing teeth. It involves anchoring two dental crowns and one (or multiple) false teeth to the natural teeth on either side of the gap.

Dental Prophylaxis

Your regular cleanings include dental prophylaxis, which consists of scaling and polishing your teeth in order to remove plaque, tartar, and stains.

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This refers to the removal of a tooth or part of a tooth. Teeth may be extracted if they’re severely decayed, impacted, or crowded, among other conditions.


Fillings are a common treatment for cavities. They involve inserting a material (typically composite resin) into the area of the tooth that’s been hollowed out by decay in order to restore the tooth’s structure.


This term refers to inflammation of the gums resulting from plaque, bacteria, or other issues. You may notice signs of gingivitis at home in the form of bleeding gums when you brush or floss. While gingivitis is typically painless, it’s important to treat it promptly to avoid more complicated gum issues such as periodontal disease.

Impacted Tooth

When a tooth is impacted, it is un-erupted or only partially erupted above the gum line. It is most likely unable to erupt completely as a result of being constrained by another tooth, bone, or soft tissue. This is common in wisdom teeth.


Dental implants are used as a permanent replacement for a lost tooth or teeth. They’re surgically inserted into the jawbone and are meant to remain fixed in place. Implants are also sometimes used as anchors for dental bridges or dentures.


This is a complicated-sounding word that simply refers to the space between two teeth.


This is another complex-sounding word with a simple definition: It simply means “inside the mouth.”


When the biting and chewing surfaces of your upper and lower teeth are improperly aligned, this is referred to as “malocclusion.”

Periodontal Disease

Chronic inflammation of the gums can lead to an infection of the connective tissue and other structures that support your teeth. This condition is referred to as periodontal disease. It’s critical to receive treatment at the earliest stages of periodontal disease in order to avoid serious dental health issues.


Plaque is a sticky substance that adheres to the surfaces of your teeth and can contribute to tooth decay. It’s composed of bacteria and food particles. Most plaque can be removed via proper brushing and flossing techniques, but regular professional cleanings are necessarily in order to fully remove the plaque from your teeth. If plaque is not adequately removed from the teeth, it hardens into tartar.

Root Canal

This procedure is performed in an effort to treat and protect an abscessed tooth. It involves cleaning out and filling the pulp chamber of a tooth.


When plaque is not adequately removed, it calcifies on tooth surfaces. This hard substance is referred to as tartar. It’s critical to see a dentist regularly for the removal of tartar; if left in place, tartar can contribute to tooth decay and other oral health issues.


A thin layer of plastic or porcelain is bonded directly onto the front of a tooth in order to form a veneer, which can serve both medical and cosmetic purposes. Veneers may be used to restore or strengthen a tooth or simply to obtain a desired aesthetic.


Armed with this lingo, dental appointments will no longer feel quite so confusing. Knowing this terminology will empower you to better communicate with your dentist and understand exactly what’s going on in your mouth.

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