Dental safety research spurred on by challenges of COVID-19 pandemic

aerosol droplets
Dr Walter Renne holds a lip retraction device he created with a 3D printer at MUSC. Photo by Sarah Pack

Dentists, once labelled the workers who face the greatest coronavirus risk, have important new information about how to protect themselves and their patients, thanks to research and innovation out of the US.

A team from the Medical University of South Carolina tested how well several devices work when it comes to preventing saliva from getting into the air during dental procedures. Along the way, team leader Professor Walter Renne invented a new device that goes on the market soon.

“In the dental space, as we work on our patients, oftentimes we generate aerosols, whether you’re running a handpiece, such as the dental drill, or if you’re using special ultrasonic scalers for cleaning teeth, nearly everything that we do generates this plume of microscopic particles that are dispersed out into the air,” Professor Renne said.

“In light of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections that spread via aerosol droplets, we were concerned about ways to mitigate that to keep those aerosols from escaping the patient’s mouth during routine dental procedures.”

So Professor Renne and his team tested a bunch of different products. That study was exploratory and didn’t try to simulate real-life conditions. But it did give the MUSC researchers a foundation for a more scientifically sound study they hoped would finally give fellow dentists data to show what works and what doesn’t. 

Meanwhile, using a 3D printer at MUSC’s dental school, Professor Renne built something new: a special lip retraction device designed to hook up to the dental high-volume suction unit dentists use to suck saliva from patients’ mouths during procedures. 

“The nice thing about this device is that it’s hands-free. So it hooks up to the patient without having the need for somebody to hold it,” he said.

He and several colleagues put it to the test, along with some other devices already on the market, in a study published in the Journal of Esthetic and Restorative Dentistry

They found that when they used dry-field isolation methods—ways of keeping the area of the mouth a dentist is working on dry—along with high-volume evacuators to suction saliva, they were able to reduce dramatically the amount of spit in the air and on the dentist’s face shield.

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  1. A bibliometric analysis of the dental scientific literature on COVID-19
    Clinical Oral Investigations (2021)
    The dental literature on the COVID-19 pandemic does not provide data relevant to the evidence-based decision-making process. Future studies with a high LoE are essential to gain precise knowledge on COVID-19 infection within the various fields of Dentistry.


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