Dental Glossary: Defining Oral Health Terms
Like any specialized branch of medicine, dentistry has its own terms. To understand dental procedures and communicate well with their dentists, patients should be familiar with these items. This list is provided as a general reference and aid to help patients and reduce confusion.
AACD – The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, an organization dedicated to offering post-graduate certification in cosmetic dentistry to dentists and laboratory technicians. The AACD also produces the Journal of Cosmetic Dentistry.
Abscess – A swollen, often fluid-filled area that results from inflammation or infection.
Abutment Teeth– The teeth that are used as support for a dental device. In dental bridging, abutment teeth are either natural or implant teeth that hold the bridge in place. Abutment teeth also are used in making dentures to support partial dentures.
Alveolectomy – Removal of part of the bone in which a tooth is embedded to aid in extraction.
Alveoloplasty – Shaping of the jaw after tooth removal to aid in fitting a denture or prosthesis.
Amalgam – A blend of metals into an alloy containing mercury, used to restore a tooth’s shape by filling a cavity.
Anesthesia – A method to block the sensation of pain, with or without affecting the patient’s conscious state.
Apicoectomy – The surgical removal of the root tip of a tooth.
Benefit – The amount an insurance company will pay toward a particular dental procedure.
Biocompatibility – Ensuring the dental materials utilized, such as porcelain for inlays or metal for fillings, do not cause an allergic or chemically sensitive reaction in the person undergoing the procedure.
Biofilm – A slimy, glue-like substance that begins as a precursor to tartar buildup that occurs on surfaces exposed to water and bacteria.
Bisphosphonate – A drug used to inhibit bone loss in osteoporosis (Paget’s disease).
Bitewing – The most common dental X-ray type that gives your dentist an image of how your upper and lower teeth align. This X-ray can be used to diagnose cavities or periodontitis-related bone loss.
Bleaching – The removal of staining from tooth surfaces, using chemicals, heat or a combination.
Bleachorexia – The overuse of teeth whitening products leading to damaged enamel, sensitivity and translucent teeth that actually appear less white.
Bonding – The application of a durable plastic material that adheres to the teeth to improve function, protect the tooth and provide cosmetic enhancement.
Bony Impaction – A tooth that does not grow or erupt from the jaw bone, which can cause pain, inflammation and discomfort.
Braces – Devices used in orthodontics to align and straighten the teeth to improve the bite.
Bridge – A fixed partial denture that replaces missing teeth and is attached either to surrounding teeth or implants.
Bruxism – An excessive grinding of the teeth, usually during sleep, that causes undue wear.
Burning Mouth Syndrome – A persistent feeling of burning in the mouth, most common in elderly women, of unknown cause but linked to menopause, dry mouth and nutritional deficiencies.
Candida Albicans – The yeast type that can cause oral thrush, which results in creamy white lesions inside the mouth and tongue.
Canines – These are the outer pair of the front four teeth on both the upper and lower jaw that are usually pointed and are just forward of the premolars.
Canker Sore – A round, pit-like break in the mucous lining of the mouth that is often painful.
Cantilever Bridges – These are partial dentures that are only fixed to existing teeth on one side but may attach to more than one tooth for mechanical strength.
Caries – The medical term for tooth decay or cavities.
Cavities – Also called a carious lesion, these are areas of decay in a tooth.
Cementum – A layer of tooth below the enamel and under the gum line that normally appears yellowish.
Centric Relation – The ideal jaw positioning within the ball-and-socket joint of the jaw. A dentist uses centric relation to encourage proper positioning in those who may have jaw and/or bite disorders.
Ceramic – A hard material used for dental repairs that resists wear and looks similar to the natural tooth.
CEREC – A type of dental technology for ceramic reconstruction that uses lasers, 3D imaging and a computer-controlled milling machine to produce a restoration in a single visit.
Cetylpiridinium Chloride (CPC) – A common ingredient in mouthwashes and toothpastes used to kill bacteria and microorganisms that must be used with caution because it can cause brown stains or film on your teeth.
Chlorhexidine – A chemical solution utilized in mouthwashes for its bacteria-killing properties and ability to reduce dental plaque.
Cleft Lip – A condition where a child’s mouth does not fully fuse together, creating a split or rounded appearance of the lip. This condition may occur with cleft palate.
Cleft Palate – A birth defect where the top of the mouth is improperly fused, leaving a gap that may extend into the lip area.
Cold Sore – A group of small, sometimes painful blisters caused by a viral infection that appears on the margins of the mouth and lips.
Computed Tomography – A digital imaging technology that generates a 3-dimensional, detailed image of the area being scanned. This imaging technology is useful in viewing the teeth and gums for dental implants.
Cosmetic Dentistry – Dental procedures where the only purpose is to improve appearance, rather than treat a functional defect.
Crossbite – When a single tooth or group of teeth is closer to the cheek or tongue than the teeth on the opposite side. A crossbite can lead to structural changes in your jaw if left untreated.
Crown – The exposed part of a tooth, this can also refer to a prosthesis that replaces a damaged crown.
Crown Lengthening – A surgical procedure that exposes more of the tooth by cutting away gingival soft tissue.
Cyst – A fluid filled sac in tissue that may or may not be inflamed.
Damon Braces – A type of orthodontic system that uses a series of wires and gates to shape the bite and avoids rubber bands – it is claimed to reduce pain, improve oral hygiene and present a better appearance.
DDS – Abbreviation for Doctor or Dental Surgery, it is the degree awarded by accredited dental schools and required to practice dentistry in the United States.
Decay – Structural damage to the teeth or other parts of the mouth from bacterial action as distinguished from mechanical damage.
Delaire Mask – A type of orthodontic appliance that must be worn several hours per day to correct an overbite. The mask has a forehead and chin piece that place pressure on the jaw to encourage proper alignment.
Dental Anxiety – A feeling of nervousness, worry, tension or stress when going to the dentist. A dental practice known as sedation dentistry can help to address dental anxiety.
Dental Benefits – Those procedures related to dentistry for which an insurance plan has fixed payment amounts, copays and deductibles set by a policy agreement.
Dental Mirror – A long, thin tool with a rounded mirror on the end that a dentist uses during a dental exam to visualizing hard-to-see areas of your mouth.
Dental Tourism – The practice of traveling to obtain dental treatment, usually to a country where prices are lower for equivalent care.
Dentin – The middle layer or body of a tooth, between the pulp and the outer enamel.
Dentures – Also called false teeth, these are removable appliances that replace some or all of a set of teeth and include the plastic base which supports them.
Digital X-Ray – A dental imaging type that does not use films, but instead sends captured images to a computer for further review. The images can often be digitally enhanced or enlarged for better viewing.
DMD – The Doctor of Dental Medicine degree, this is equivalent to the DDS degree, and the holder is qualified to practice general dentistry.
Dry Socket – A painful inflammation of the cavity left after a tooth extraction either from infection or when a clot doesn’t form properly.
E4D – A CAD/CAM system that's similar to CEREC and capable of creating same-day crowns in addition to inlays, onlays, veneers and temporary bridges.
Edentulation – The removal of teeth, usually used in the context of getting full dentures.
Enamel – The hard, visible outer covering of a tooth above the gum line.
Enamel Hypoplasia – Disruptions to the tooth enamel that occur before the tooth is erupted, resulting in discolored or misshapen teeth.
Endodontics – The dental specialty concerned with treatment of the root or pulp of teeth.
Erosion – A wearing down of the tooth’s enamel due to long-term exposure to acidic foods, beverages or stomach contents.
Erythroplakia – Red patches on the inside of the mouth or tongue that can be a precancerous lesion.
Extraction – Removal of a tooth or part of a tooth.
FAGD – Fellow, Academy of General Dentistry – this designation is awarded upon completion of 500 credits of continuing dental education and passing a certification exam.
Filling – The application of space-filling material, either metal amalgam, plastic or porcelain designed to replace lost tooth structure and restore function.
Fixed Bridge – A dental bridge type that has two crowns attached to abutment teeth that are then permanently fused to an artificial tooth or pontic.
Flossing – A teeth cleaning technique that uses a thin string (floss) to remove food particles from between the teeth.
Fluoridation – The practice of adding dental enamel-enhancing fluoride to your water supply to reduce tooth decay. The World Health Organization recommends water be fluoridated at a level of 0.5 to 1.0 mg/L.
Fluoride – A chemical element used to help prevent tooth decay that is added to water supplies, toothpastes and in some dental preparations.
Fluoride Mouthwashes – A mouthwash type that features fluoride to strengthen the teeth and protect against tooth decay. Because you typically get enough fluoride exposure via water and toothpaste, use only with your dentist’s recommendation.
Fluorosis – Tiny white specs or streaks in the enamel of the teeth that occurs when the developing teeth are exposed to excessive amounts of fluoride.
Full-mouth Reconstruction – A combination of cosmetic and functional repair involving all or most of the teeth and may include many dental specialties – cosmetic dentistry for crowns, bridges and porcelain veneers; orthodontics to move the teeth into position and periodontics to treat gum disease.
Gastroesophogeal Reflux Disorder (GERD)– This is a disorder where the sphincter between the throat and stomach allows acid to come up into the esophagus, causing heartburn and damage.
Gingiva – The relatively soft, firm lining of the mouth which extends up the neck of a tooth, commonly called the gum.
Gingivitis – An inflammation and swelling of the gingival, with or without pain, without involvement of deeper tissues.
Gold Crown – A prothesis that replaces the damaged top portion of a tooth. Gold’s malleable texture makes it easy to shape and does not affect teeth chewing against the crown. Because of its bright color, gold crowns are not typically used in front teeth.
Gum Contouring – A surgical procedure that can correct a “gummy smile” by removing excess gum tissue and bone via laser or manual methods. The procedure is often performed in conjunction with crown lengthening to make the teeth appear longer.
Gum Bleaching – A cosmetic procedure that breaks down and removes excess pigment in the gums.
Gums – Also called gingival, this is the firm tissue that surrounds the teeth below the enamel.
Halitosis – The medical term for bad breath; in dentistry, this is usually caused by periodontal disease.
Headgear – An orthodontic appliance that attaches to braces or a palatal expander used to correct dental conditions such as an overbite or to make space for teeth to come in.
Holistic Dentistry – An emerging dental specialty that focuses on providing natural dentistry services, such as non-toxic dentistry services and nutritional counseling.
Hygienist – A professional who specializes in oral care and cleanliness, in some jurisdictions they may be licensed and referred to as a Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH).
Impacted Tooth – A tooth that has not yet emerged and is prevented from doing so by bone, another tooth or other tissues.
Implant – An anchor, surgically attached into the bone of the upper or lower jaw so that replacement prosthetics can be held firmly to the jaw.
Impression – A negative mold of the teeth used to make a cast, or model, of all or part of the teeth and gums.
Incisors – The two front teeth in the lower and upper jaws used primarily for biting.
Inlay – A type of filling cast outside the mouth that fits a prepared pit in a tooth without covering the cusps of a molar.
Invisalign® – A patented product of Align Technology, these are clear plastic, removable teeth covers that can be used instead of metal braces and are considered more cosmetically appealing.
Jaw – Either the upper or lower bony structures of the mouth into which the teeth are set.
Leukoplakia – White patches that appear in the mouth that are thought to be due to long-term irritation. Some types indicate another disease condition.
Lingual Braces – A type of orthodontic that hides the braces on the inner side of teeth primarily for cosmetic reasons.
Lumineer – A trademarked, thin porcelain shell that is bonded to the front surface of teeth, without significant removal of enamel, for cosmetic purposes.
Malocclusion – Poor alignment of upper and lower teeth, which interferes with proper chewing and biting.
Maryland Bridge – A false tooth that is supported in place with wings on each side bonded to the adjacent teeth on their inner (not chewing) surface.
Metal Crown – A metal crown is a prosthesis that replaces a damaged portion of the top of a tooth. Known for their durability, metal crowns are most commonly used on molars that must withstand the most chewing and grinding.
Modified Hawley Splint – A dental splint that fits on the front six teeth that prevents the upper jaw from touching the lower jaw to prevent teeth clenching and grinding.
Molar – The thick, flatter teeth, furthest from the front of the mouth, used primarily for grinding, instead of biting food.
Mouth Guard – A custom molded, removable, plastic protector designed to lessen the risk of injury to teeth.
Nasoalveolar Molding – Also known as NAM, this molding plate can be used prior to cleft lip and/or palate surgery to close the cleft palate and reduce the amount of surgeries needed to correct the cleft palate.
Night Guard – Also called occlusal splints, these are soft plastic teeth protectors worn during sleep to prevent damage from clenching or grinding (bruxism), and in the treatment of temporomandibular joint disorder.
Nitrous Oxide – Also called “laughing gas,” this is an inhaled anesthesia agent used to reduce a patient’s awareness and response to pain.
Occlusal – A term describing the contact and fit between the upper and lower teeth when biting or chewing.
Occlusal X-Ray – A dental x-ray type that captures upper or lower teeth and is used to identify molars that have not erupted, growths in the jaw and gums or when planning treatment for cleft palate or a jaw fracture.
Onlay – A type of filling cast outside of the mouth which overlays at least one cusp of a molar when placed in a tooth cavity prepared for it.
Oral and Maxillofacial Radiologist – A medical specialty that focuses on reading and interpreting dental imaging scans.
Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery – A dental specialty that focuses on surgery and surgical care of the mouth and surrounding structures.
Oral Cancer – Cancerous tissue affecting the lips, gum tissue, cheek lining, the hard or soft palate, or the tongue.
Oral Thrush – White or cream colored growth of yeast in the mouth, usually on the tongue.
Orthodontics – The dental specialty concerned with teeth alignment and the consequences of misalignment, including abnormalities of nerves and skeletal structures.
Orthognathics – The subspecialty dealing with position of the bones of the jaw, as contrasted with orthodontics which positions the teeth.
Osseointegration – A dental technique used to implant compatible materials into bone so that they will become part of the existing structure as bone heals.
Overbite – The amount of overlap of the top front teeth over the lower when the mouth is closed, with the normal range being 20 to 30 percent.
Palate – The “roof” of the mouth, or upper surface, that is firm near the front of the mouth (hard palate) and soft at the back of the throat (soft palate).
Panoramic – A dental x-ray type that captures your upper and lower teeth, jaw, nose and sinuses. Although the x-ray is not detailed, it helps your dentist identify impacted teeth, tumors, infections and jaw joint issues.
Papillae – The cone-shaped projection of tissue between the teeth – the gingival papillae.
Pediatric Dentistry – The dental specialty concerned with oral health care and development from birth through adolescence.
Periapical – A dental x-ray type that shows only a few teeth at a time, revealing a detailed closeup of exposed crown to tooth root. This x-ray type is often used to diagnose an abscess, cyst or impacted tooth.
Periodontal Probe – A dentistry tool that has a long, blunt tip that with markings that help your dentist determine the level of gum depth around a tooth.
Periodontics – A dental specialty focused on the tissues and structures that support the teeth.
Periodontitis – Inflammation of the tissues that surround and support the teeth, but not yet resulting in loss of connective tissue or bone.
Pharyngeal Cancer – Cancer that begins at or spreads to your throat or pharynx. Symptoms may include trouble swallowing, ear pain, unexplained cough or sudden vocal hoarseness.
Plaque – A film or layered deposit on teeth from bacteria, food particles and products of bacterial growth.
Pontics – The artificial tooth portion of dental bridge that can consist of one or more false teeth.
Porcelain – A ceramic material used to replace teeth that is durable and mimics the look of a natural tooth.
Porcelain Fused-to-Metal Crowns – Also known as PFM crowns, this crown type uses porcelain on top of the tooth to make it look more natural. Metal is first fused to the tooth for added durability.
Preventative Dentistry – Established practices which improve overall oral health by instilling habits and behaviors which reduce risks of injury and tooth decay.
Prosthetics – Any false tooth or repair meant to mimic a natural tooth.
Prosthodontics – The dental specialty concerned with replacing lost or damaged teeth with prosthetics to improve function or appearance.
Pulp – The blood vessels, nerves and connective tissues which feed and support a tooth.
Pyorrhea – Another name for periodontitis, a condition that causes inflammation and infection of the gums and ligaments that support the teeth.
Resin – A type of hard-setting plastic that is compatible with teeth and is used as a filler and bonding agent.
Retainer – A removable appliance used to hold teeth in place after surgery or orthodontic treatment to keep teeth in the proper position while the surrounding tissue adapts to the change.
Root – The part of the tooth that extends below the gum line and into the jaw that is not covered with enamel.
Root Canal – Either the anatomical portion of the tooth root that contains the pulp or a procedure which treats this area.
Saliva – The watery fluid produced by the saliva glands in the mouth which aids swallowing, digestion and provides some protection against infection.
Sealant – A material bonded to the contacting surfaces of teeth to fill cracks and to prevent damage from excessive wear.
Sedation Dentistry – Refers to using drugs to reduce anxiety and awareness during dental procedures, while still allowing patients to communicate and respond to instructions.
Sensitivity – Teeth that react with pain when exposed to a stimulus, such as hot or cold food, sweet or sour foods, or physical contact such as brushing.
Sjogren's Syndrome – A disease where the immune system of the body attacks and destroys the tissues that produce saliva, resulting in an overly dry mouth (xerostomia).
Sleep Apnea – Interruption in normal breathing pattern during sleep, usually because airflow is obstructed.
Smile Makeover – A series of cosmetic dental treatments meant to improve looks and instill confidence and a sense of well being.
Soft Tissue Impaction – When a tooth does not grow fully through your gums, but does grow past your jaw bone.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma – The most common oral cancer type that may appear as a reddish skin ulcer or plaque, but does not typically cause other symptoms.
Stabilization/Flat Plane Splint – A dental device used to reduce TMJ pain that covers the entire top teeth portion and has a flat surface on its underside to discourage teeth clenching and reduce TMJ pain.
Sterilization – A procedure that removes dirt, blood, bacteria and germs from dental tools between patient uses, using very high temperatures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulate sterilization of dental tools.
Tartar – Also called dental calculus, this is a hard, yellowish deposit on the teeth caused by bacteria.
Teething – A developmental stage in infants starting between 3 and 12 months and lasting up to several years, where the first set of teeth (baby teeth) emerge from the gums.
TMJ – Temporomandibular joint dysfunction is abnormal functioning of the hinging joint of the jaw which may cause pain or other symptoms beyond the joint itself.
Tongue Scraper – Also known as a tongue cleaner, a dental tool with plastic or fiber bristles that can be used to remove volatile sulfure compounds that can lead to bad breath.
Transcutaneous Electrical Neural Stimulation (TENS) – A dental treatment commonly used for TMJ that delivers ultra low-frequency electrical waves to relax your jaw muscles and enhance blood flow.
Trauma – Any physical damage or injury to teeth or tissues of the mouth, usually from a striking or blunt force, although surgery will also result in trauma.
Trench Mouth – An inflammation and dying off gum tissues from infection or malnutrition, also called acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis.
Triclosan – An antibacterial ingredient added to many toothpastes to aid in the prevention of gingivitis, tartar buildup and bad breath.
Tuberosity Reduction – A surgical removal of bone or fibrous tissue in the upper jaw near the back done to allow a better fit of dentures.
Turner’s Hypoplasia – A disruption in the protective enamel around a single permanent tooth that often occurs as the result of an infection as a baby or injury to the gingival area.
Underbite – A misalignment of the front teeth where the lower overlap the upper.
Veneer – A type of porcelain shell bonded to the surface of teeth permanently that requires removal of some existing tooth surface for aesthetic purposes.
Volatile Sulfur Compounds (VSCs) – Compounds that have a strong smell often associated with halitosis or bad breath. Gum disease is often responsible for the presence of these compounds.
White Gums – Dental condition where white spots appear on the gums, most commonly caused by general irritation, oral thrush, leukoplakia or oral cancers.
Wisdom Teeth – The last teeth to emerge (between 17 and 25 years old), these are called the third molars and grow farthest back in the mouth.
Xerostomia – An inability to produce sufficient saliva to properly wet the mouth; excessively dry mouth from any cause.
X-Ray – Also called a radiograph, this is an image produced by ionizing radiation of the teeth and underlying structures of the mouth.
Zirconia – A type of ceramic used for crowns, bridges and implants that is harder than other ceramics and used in dental restorations.