Periodic, limited, and comprehensive dental exam: which one do you need?

Inspecting your mouth during dental exams is one of the most important aspects of preventive care. The ADA recommends doing them regularly, however, your dentist is the one who can advise the most accurate intervals for you.

Together with our dental team we have prepared a breakdown of the most common types of exams at the dental office. Continue reading to learn how often you should schedule them.

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Periodic exam

If you visit your dental office regularly this is going to be the most common procedure to undergo. According to this study by the Delta Dental Plans Association 58% of Americans have a check-up at least once a year. It will help make sure you are on top of your oral health game.

Periodic exams are conveniently recommended twice a year. This is true for both adults and children.

Dr. Henry Hackney
Visits every 6 months are recommended after initial tooth eruption. Tooth decay is often prevalent in children under six due to nursing, use of bottles, fruit juice intake, etc.

A dental check-up often happens on the same day as a dental cleaning.

What is going to happen?

Your dentist or hygienist will assess the state of your gums, teeth, tongue, throat, cheeks, and lips. He or she will then scale and polish to remove plaque build-up that could cause gum disease.

X-rays are often taken during this check-up to detect any underlying dental issues. If the dentist has your FMX on file, he or she may recommend only re-taking X-ray images of the posterior teeth.
You will then discuss any treatment that could be necessary. This is a good time to mention that you are thinking about getting veneers or dental implants.

When should I schedule a periodic exam?

A periodic exam, as the name suggests, should take place regularly. The ADA recommends one every six months. It helps keep things in check and allows you to discuss treatment options with your dentist.

Periodic exam
Main components
  • Intra-oral examination
  • Scale and polish
  • X-rays, if necessary
  • Consultation
When should you schedule
  • Every six months

Comprehensive exam

This dental evaluation is the most thorough. If you haven’t been to the dentist in a long time (or ever) you will probably have a comprehensive exam.

What is going to happen?

This appointment will start with an evaluation of your medical history, a review of any medications you are taking, your habits and diet, and any concerns you may have.

Your teeth along with all intraoral (inside the mouth), extraoral (outside of the mouth), and soft tissues will be extensively evaluated. Your dentist will check for cavities and examine your bite.

This is also a good opportunity for a dental cleaning and a lesson on oral hygiene, if necessary. Your mouth will be screened for oral cancer as well. If you have any fillings, bridges, crowns, or a denture those will be inspected too.

The dentist or a dental hygienist will take X-rays if they are necessary. He or she may suspect decay between the teeth or abscesses under the gumline, both of which are not visible with the naked eye. A full-mouth series of X-rays (an FMX) may be conducted.

Dr. Namrita Harchandani
A panoramic radiograph and FMX (full mouth series of X-rays) are more than enough information for a comprehensive oral exam.

A treatment plan may be devised. You may also pick your dentist’s brain if you have any queries.

When should I schedule a comprehensive exam?

This type of dental exam is often compulsory for new patients. If you aren’t changing offices you should not be thinking about a comprehensive exam more often than once every three years. That is the ADA recommendation for adults and children above the age of two.

You might need one more often, however, if you suffer from certain conditions or diseases, or if you are a smoker. It’s best to discuss your habits and general health with your dentist.

A problem-focused extensive oral exam follow-up might be needed if you have a systemic disease, prosthetic problems, or TMD.

Comprehensive exam
Main components
  • Dental evaluation
  • Oral health assessment
  • Teeth cleaning and stain removal
  • Oral hygiene instructions
  • Oral cancer screening
  • Restoration examination
  • X-rays
  • Patient-doctor interview
When should you schedule
  • Once every three years
  • When starting new treatment
  • Changing dental office

Limited exam

A limited oral evaluation is often also referred to as an emergency exam. It is meant to visit a walk-in dentist with acute oral health problems that cannot wait.

What is going to happen?

The dentist will inspect the problem area or look for one if you aren’t able to locate the pain. He or she will have a close look at your gums, teeth, tongue, throat, cheeks, and lips. X-rays might be taken to find any issues that aren’t immediately visible.

If the problem is minor you might be treated right away. If it is determined that you will need invasive treatment, such as a root canal, you might have to schedule another appointment.

When should I schedule a limited exam?

A limited exam could be appropriate if you have an accident or if you are experiencing sharp pain that won’t go away. Since it was designed to target a particular issue, this appointment cannot be performed regularly. You should only schedule one if the need arises.

This could be when a wisdom tooth erupts, if you have just had an accident that affected your oral area, or if you are feeling pain and cannot pinpoint what is wrong exactly. Sometimes this kind of pain could indicate acute infection below the gum line, which should be treated as soon as possible.

Also, you might want to go and see your dentist if a filling falls out or if you lose a crown.

Periodic exam
Main components
  • Visual search for the problem area
  • X-rays, if necessary
  • Treatment, if minor
  • Consultation
When should you schedule
  • In a dental emergency

Is it necessary to visit the dentist regularly?

In short: yes. A beautiful, white smile is becoming very trendy. It is no longer enough to simply brush your teeth. While taking care of your health is most important, the dentist can also help make sure you are satisfied with the way your mouth looks.

What’s more, maintaining oral health and hygiene has an impact on your entire body. Neglecting to do this can lead to diabetes, oral cancer, issues with blood pressure, and more. Working preventively is smarter, and often a lot cheaper, than having to worry about fixing everything that goes wrong.

That’s why it’s so important to keep up to date with your dental appointments. This way you know when you need to pay for a cavity filling before it becomes basis for a root canal treatment, crown, or worse, an extraction.


When should the first dental visit take place?

A common saying about when to schedule the first visit is “first tooth or first birthday”. It’s a general rule of thumb, but the ADA similarly suggests that an exam should be set up during the initial six months. A comprehensive exam is recommended when the child turns two.

How long does a dental exam take?

The exam itself usually takes 30-45 minutes unless additional procedures are also scheduled or necessary.

What are the most common procedures associated with exams?

X-rays can be conveniently taken during dental examinations. Bitewings, for example, are recommended every year, similarly to a periodic exam. This makes it the perfect opportunity to avoid visiting the dentist more often than necessary.

You can also take advantage of the opportunity to schedule your prophylactic cleaning on the same day.

How often should you visit a dentist?

The ADA recommends a regular periodic exam, or as your dentist suggests. This usually comes out to twice a year.

Is the lack of dental visits dangerous for your health?

Yes. Neglecting to visit your dentist can easily lead to losing a tooth that you could otherwise have your entire life. Moreover, undiagnosed oral issues can lead to serious complications that concern your entire body. Studies show that untreated decay or gum disease can cause heart trouble, diabetes, pneumonia, and more.