Can Teeth Be Cleaned With a Cold Sore? Hygienist Explains

A cold sore (herpes simplex virus type 1) on the upper lip.

As a dental hygienist, I deal with all types of oral lesions and conditions, some of which interfere with my dental hygiene practice. If you have a cold sore, you know it can be painful and will have blisters that will crack open and ooze. But what happens if you have a cold sore and have a dental appointment to clean your teeth? Can you still have your teeth cleaned?

Teeth cannot be cleaned with an active cold sore, and dental work should be avoided until the cold sore is completely healed. If dental treatment is done while ulcers are still present, the virus can be spread to other areas of the mouth of the patient or infect the dental professional.

In this post, I cover in more detail why you should not have dental treatment while you have an active cold sore and the consequences, what to do if your dental professional says it’s okay, why we ask our patients about cold sores and other ways cold sores can spread that you should be aware of.

Why you can’t get your teeth cleaned with a cold sore

Having your teeth cleaned with an active cold sore is a risk to the patient and the dental professional. Not only is the virus active in the site of the cold sore, but also in the saliva.

If you have an active cold sore, your dental appointment should be rescheduled until it is fully healed.

If your dental issue or condition is severe such as an infection, you should talk with your dental professional and see if it is safe to postpone.

What can happen if you get your teeth cleaned if you have a cold sore

We (dental professionals) touch and stretch the lips and oral surfaces during dental treatment, which can transfer the herpes virus throughout the mouth and spread the sores.

When dental treatment is done, many procedures cause aerosol generation of saliva, which causes the virus to be suspended in the air and land on surfaces, including the dental professional, increasing transmission of the herpes simplex virus and infecting the dental professional.

To understand all the aspects of a dental hygiene appointment, I wrote a post on it linked below. It will explain in more detail the elements of the appointment that will cause the most risk to spread of infection if we continue with treatment (even though we shouldn’t).

Read Now: How Dental Hygienists Clean Teeth! What You Need to Know!

Suppose there are breaks in the gloves (often microscopic that the naked eye cannot see) or get punctured by a contaminated dental instrument. In that case, the virus can come into contact with the skin and cause herpetic whitlow in the hand of the dental professional.

Herpetic whitlow caused by herpes simplex virus type 1.
Even if the dental professional experiences cold sores, they can still contract the virus in the fingers by accidentally puncturing themselves through a contaminated instrument that has can come in contact with a patient with an active cold sore. A puncture to the hands with a contaminated instrument can cause herpetic whitlow. 

Herpetic whitlow causes swelling, pain, and blisters that prevent the dental professional from working with an active infection. If a dental professional works while they have an active herpetic lesion on their hands, they endanger every single patient they see.

Why do dentists and hygienists ask if you get cold sores?

Dentists and dental hygienists ask patients if they have a history of cold sores so they can inform the patient about possible oral complications, prevent spread, and tell them that if they have an active cold sore, to cancel their appointment and rebook for when the lesion is fully healed.

If you call your dental office and try to cancel, or have gone into the dental office with an active cold sore and they tell you it is okay to treat you, you may want to read the below section on this topic. It is a huge red flag.

What to do if your dental professional says it is okay to treat you if you have a cold sore

This is a red flag. In certain circumstances where dental treatment cannot be avoided, treatment needs to be done, but this is only limited to non-elective treatment where the health and safety of the patient would be compromised.

All elective treatment should be postponed until the cold sore is healed. And if your dental professional says it is okay to treat you if you have a cold sore, I would question their priorities and wonder if they are more concerned with the money they will not make that day by not treating you over your health and safety.

Some dental professionals are pressured by their superiors to continue treatment. No dentist should ever pressure their staff to treat people with an active cold sore. I was once pressured by a superior, which made me pretty upset and showed their true colours of what they thought mattered; money over patient safety. Herpes simplex is not a virus you want to take a chance with.

If I were a patient with all the knowledge I have now regarding this topic, I would want to be treated by a dental professional who explains these things to me and cares about my health and safety (and their own) over making money and billing the patient. I would be looking for a new dentist.

If you have experienced this, and your dental professional has put money before your health, I wrote a post that explains the best way to leave your dental office and switch to a new one, which is linked below.

Read Now: How Do I Leave My Dentist? Hygienist Explains How to Switch!

Can cold sores spread through sharing toothbrushes?

Sharing toothbrushes can spread cold sores between individuals because cold sores can be spread by transmitting saliva and fluid from an active cold sore. Herpes simplex virus type 1 is highly transmissible and can cause pain, compromise nutrition and interfere with everyday activities.

However, it is essential to note that toothbrushes shouldn’t be shared. It is like sharing toilet paper after going to the bathroom.

It would be best if you changed your toothbrush after you have a cold sore

If you have an active cold sore, you need to change the toothbrush or the toothbrush head on your electric toothbrush. The virus can survive up to 8 weeks on an inanimate surface, so if you don’t change your toothbrush, you can spread it throughout your mouth.

HSV virus survives for short periods of time outside the host Footnote3. It can survive on dry inanimate surfaces (survival ranges from few hours to 8 weeks). 

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Herpes simplex virus type 1 is not a virus you want to take chances on. Because precautions and postponement of elective dental treatment are so easy to take, I don’t personally understand why dental professionals are taking this health risk. Not only for themselves but the health and safety of the patients!

I hope you have found this information useful!

Holly 🙂

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