There are a variety of terms that are used in discussions of oral health care. Here, we help sort out what the terms actually mean.

Amalgam Separator

A device designed to capture particles of dental amalgam from dental office wastewater therefore reducing the amount of mercury and other pollutants that are discharged into wastewater treatment plants.  

Amelogenesis Imperfecta

A group of hereditary disorders that result in the abnormal development of the tooth enamel.


A broad range of drugs used to relieve pain, including mild analgesics such as aspirin and ibupropen and more potent and potentially addictive narcotic drugs such as morphine and oxycodone.

Antibiotic stewardship

The responsible use of antibiotics.

Aseptic retrieval

The process of picking up an instrument or other item without contaminating its container or any other surface. The goal of aseptic retrieval is eliminating cross-contamination; that is, spreading microbes from one surface or person to another.

Avulsed tooth

A tooth that has been knocked out – completely displaced from its socket.

Bucchal region

The area of the head comprised of the soft tissues of the cheeks.


A tiny bit that is used on a dental drill.

Burning Mouth Syndrome (BMS)

A painful condition marked by a range of symptoms that may include burning, tingling, numbness, or dryness in the mouth. A little understood disorder, it may last for months or years. No specific treatment works for everyone.


The grinding or clenching of the teeth, unrelated to normal functions such as eating, that can result in facial pain or damage to the teeth. The condition can be triggered by stress, a sleep disorder or some other cause.


Hardened or calcified plaque, which starts as a soft sticky bacterial buildup on the teeth.


Dull and yellow, it is the external layer of the tooth root.

Community Dental Health Coordinator

A community health worker model piloted by the American Dental Association to help address oral health disparities. CDHCs are trained to provide oral health education and preventive services and coordinate patient care with a goal of bringing more people into the dental care system. As of late 2013, the CDHC project had graduated 34 students now serving in seven states: Arizona, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

Craniofacial complex

The bones and soft tissues of the face and cranium that house the organs of taste, vision, hearing and smell.

Deciduous teeth

Also known as baby teeth. There are 20 of them, typically erupting between 6 months and two and three years  of age. When a child is about six years old, the deciduous teeth begin to fall out,  making way for the permanent (adult) teeth.

Dental amalgam

A substance used for fillings which contains mercury predominantly bound to metals including silver, zinc, copper and tin. It has been used for dental restorations for more than 150 years. While questions about its safety remain a subject of intense debate for some consumer groups, amalgam’s continued use has long been defended by mainstream dental organizations. Read more about the safety of amalgams in this blog post.

Dental caries

A chronic, progressive, largely preventable disease also known as dental decay. Caries is caused by a species of mutans streptococci bacteria that inhabit the biofilm or plaque coating the teeth. The bacteria ferment sugars and other carbohydrates, forming acids that slowly dissolve the tooth enamel. If unchecked in the enamel, the decay can go on to penetrate deeper into the tooth, when reaching the pulp, causing toothache.  An untreated pulp infection can lead to abscess, bone destruction and the spread of the infection by way of the blood stream. 

Dental fluorisis

A change in the appearance of the tooth’s enamel, ranging, in mild forms as nearly invisible white spots, and in more severe forms as pitting and staining. It occurs when young children consume too much fluoride, from any source, over long periods when teeth are developing under the gums.

Dental fluorosis

Changes in the mineralization and appearance of the teeth due to long-term ingestion of fluoride at higher than optimal levels. It occurs during childhood when the teeth are forming and can range from a barely visible light mottling to pitting and dark staining.

Dental Health Aide Therapist (DHAT)

A dental auxiliary working in Alaskan tribal lands as part of the Community Health Aide Program, established in the 1950s to serve remote communities.

Dental hygienist

A licensed health care professional. This model has existed for nearly a century since a dentist trained his assistant in providing preventive care.  Dental hygienists, who are virtually all female, now provide a range of preventive, therapeutic and educational services. Their scope of practice varies from state to state. 

Dental implant

A post, which is usually made of titanium, is surgically implanted into the jaw, replaces the root of a lost tooth. A crown, which is attached to the top of implant by an abutment, completes the replacement tooth.

Dental sealant

A thin plastic coating applied to the chewing surface of a molar (a back tooth) to help prevent tooth decay. 

Dental therapist

An oral health provider model in long use in many countries, only recently being piloted in the United States.  Less highly-trained than dentists, therapists provide basic educational, preventive and restorative services.  The American Dental Association has strongly opposed the model but it has wide support among public health advocates who see therapists as a less expensive way of getting care to underserved areas where dentists are often scarce.

Dental veneers

Thin shells made of porcelain or resin composite materials that are bonded to the fronts of the teeth for cosmetic purposes. They are often used to cover discolored, misaligned or uneven teeth, or teeth with gaps between them. 


A paste, powder, liquid or gel used for cleaning the teeth. 


Hard yellowish tissue that makes up most of the inner portion of the tooth’s crown and root.

Denture stomatitis

This common form of oral candidiasis, a fungal infection, is caused when tissues inside the mouth are traumatized by ill-fitting or poorly cleaned dental appliances.

DMFT index

In dental epidemiology, the “Decayed, Missing, Filled Teeth (DMFT) Index” measures the number of teeth or tooth surfaces that are decayed, missing or filled in an adult individual. When written in lower case, the dmft index indicates the number of teeth or tooth surfaces that are decayed, missing or filled in a child. Under some protocols, missing teeth in children are disregarded, making it the dft index.


The loss of all teeth. An estimated 22.9 percent of older Americans have lost all their teeth, according to the latest NHANES data (from 2005-08). A higher percentage of poor Americans are edentulous than those who are living above the poverty level. 


A dental instrument used to loosen a tooth before extraction.


The protective white surface layer of the tooth crown; highly mineralized, it is the hardest substance in the body.

Enamel fluorosis

The mottling of tooth enamel caused by excessive fluoride consumption during tooth development. The condition can range from a mild form that is barely visible to a severe form that is indicated by pitted and brittle enamel. 


the acronym for Medicaid’s child health component.  Established in 1967, the Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment program entitles children covered by Medicaid to a comprehensive set of benefits and services, which differ from adult benefits. 


E-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury.


The ionic form of fluorine, a common element. When consumed in water or in tablets, or applied to the teeth in toothpaste, rinses or varnishes, fluoride inhibits the demineralization of the enamel and the bacterial activity in dental plaque. It can also help reverse the decay process by enhancing remineralization of the enamel. 
Related: Water fluoridation: Resources for reporters


An inflammation of the gums caused by an accumulation of dental plaque containing destructive bacteria.

Gingival sulcus

The gap between the tooth and the surrounding gum tissue. Flossing the teeth helps remove the food debris and plaque that can collect in this area. An oral health professional may use a probe to check the gingival sulcus as a way of determining the health of the gums.  

Glass ionomer

A tooth colored, fluoride-releasing cement used to seal cavity-prone pits and fissures in healthy teeth and to treat decayed surfaces in minimally invasive restorations.


A powered dental instrument that can be fitted with attachments for drilling, grinding and polishing teeth.


An excessive formation of cementum, the dull yellow external layer of a tooth’s root. The formation, which appears around the root, can be caused by trauma, a metabolic disorder or an inflammation of the tooth’s pulp.


The developmental absence of one or more teeth.


A term used to describe a disease or condition of unknown origin.

Impacted tooth

A tooth that remains embedded in bone or tissue because its eruption is blocked or prevented.

Interim therapeutic restoration

A temporary restoration for a decayed tooth. The treatment, which does not require a drill or local anesthetic, typically employs a fluoride-releasing glass ionomer cement that is applied to the tooth with a small brush.


The dislocation of a tooth from its socket.


The crowding or misalignment of the teeth. These include such conditions as overjet, where the front teeth project far forward; severe overbite where the front teeth greatly overlap the lower and posterior crossbite where the back upper and lower chewing surfaces fail to make good contact.


The lower jaw bone; it holds the lower teeth.


The process of chewing. After food is placed in the mouth, it is moved into position by the cheeks and tongue and it is chopped and ground between the teeth. Mastication makes food safe to swallow and is the first step in digestion. 


The upper jaw bone.

Mouth mirror

An instrument, also called a dental mirror, that is fitted with a handle and used in the examination of the teeth and other structures within the mouth.


A disfiguring, often fatal gangrenous disease that begins with ulcers in the mouth. Its chief victims are young children living in poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Non-cavitated lesion

An early stage in the tooth decay process. At this stage, a fluoride treatment or sealant may stop or reverse the demineralization of the tooth. 


The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987, along with subsequent federal regulations, aimed to improve standards in nursing home care in many areas, including oral health. Among its provisions, OBRA requires nursing homes that accept funds from Medicare or Medicaid to provide for dental care and assess the oral health of their residents.

Oral and pharyngeal cancers

A diverse group of tumors of the lips, tongue, pharynx and oral cavity. Usually squamous cell carcinomas, they are counted among the most debilitating and disfiguring of cancers. Tobacco and alcohol use are the primary risk factors.

Oral bullae

Oral blisters

Oral flora

The bacteria that colonize the mouth.

Oral health literacy

The ability to obtain, process and understand the basic information needed to make appropriate oral health decisions. Beyond basic reading, writing and communication skills, oral health literacy also addresses the individual’s ability to obtain needed services and perform self-care. 

Oral mucosa

A mucous membrane that covers the tissues within the oral cavity. It serves as a protective barrier against chemical irritants, mechanical forces and microorganisms.

Oral mucositis

The inflammation and ulceration of the mucosal lining of the mouth; a common and painful complication of radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer. 


The formation and differentiation of organs and their systems within a developing embryo.

Oropharyngeal Cancers

Cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.

Osteonecrosis of the jaw

An oral lesion involving exposed bone in the jaw.

Periapical abscess

A pocket of pus at the apex of the root of a tooth, caused by an infection.

Periodontal disease

Bacterially-caused infections of the oral surfaces, including gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums; and periodontitis which may involve both the soft tissue of the mouth and the bone that supports the teeth. 

Permanent teeth – or adult teeth

There are 28 to 32 of them, depending upon whether the four wisdom teeth, also known as third molars, are present. 


The throat


A bicuspid, or double-cusped tooth, located between the sharp incisor teeth in front of the mouth and the larger molar teeth in the back of the mouth. Adults typically have eight premolars.


In epidemiology, the measure of how many existing cases of a disease or condition are found in a population at a given point in time. Prevalence is often expressed as a percentage, or as the number of cases per 100,000 of the population.


Soft tissue containing blood vessels and nerves that is located in the chamber at the center of the tooth crown and root.


This fluid, produced by the salivary glands, aids digestion and protects the oral tissues.


Technologies that employ saliva as a medium for detecting and monitoring disease.

Salivary glands

A complex of glands that surround the oral cavity and produce and secrete saliva. They include three major pairs of glands: the parotid glands, located near the ears, and the submandibular and sublingual glands which lie in the floor of the mouth.

Scaling and root planing

A "deep cleaning" treatment for periodontal disease that removes bacteria and dental plaque from gum pockets and root surfaces.

Silver diamine fluoride

A topical medicament that is used in the treatment of dental sensitivity and increasingly, as a minimally invasive treatment for tooth decay. The mixture contains silver, which has been found to kill bacteria that contribute to decay, as well as fluoride, which helps remineralize the enamel.

Sjögren's Syndrome

A chronic autoimmune disease in which the white blood cells attack the body’s moisture-producing glands. Common symptoms include dry mouth, dry eyes, fatigue and joint pain.  As many as four million Americans, the great majority of them women,  are believed to be living with this disease. 


The use of electronic information transfer technologies and/or mobile electronic devices to provide remote provider-patient assessments, diagnoses, consultations and referrals for oral health conditions.

Tempromandibular joint and muscle disorders (TMJ)

A group of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the joint that connects the lower jaw (or mandible) and the bone at the side of the head (known as the temporal bone) and the muscles that control the jaw. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, more than 10 million Americans may suffer from these disorders. How and why they progress is not clear. For many people, the pain goes away without treatment but some develop significant and long-term symptoms. 

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC

The main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis (marijuana).

Unerupted tooth

A tooth that is still developing; it may be moving toward the surface of the gum but cannot yet be seen.


Commonly known as dry mouth, this is a common problem with a number of causes, including prescription and non-prescription drug use. Left untreated, dry mouth can have serious consequences because of the important role saliva plays in protecting oral and systemic health.