What are topical anaesthetics? | Dental Treatment Guide

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Topical anaesthetics are a method of pain and discomfort relief. The anaesthetic is applied directly onto the mucus membrane or skin in order to have its effect. If they contain benzocaine, then you are able to purchase them over-the-counter with ease in certain pharmacies and supermarkets. They can then be used for everyday relief from issues with dental braces, toothache and teething.

Common uses for topical anaesthetics include the relief of discomfort due to:

  • Dental injections and/or treatments
  • Insect bites
  • Haemorrhoids (piles)
  • Skin cuts or grazes
  • Poison ivy reactions
  • Sunburn

Why do dentists use topical anaesthetics?

There are a number of reasons that justify the use of topical anaesthetics by dentists. The most common justifications include:

  • Minimising the amount of pain felt when administering an injection
  • Preventing the patient having a gag reflex when equipment touches the back of their throat – this is common when trying to take a dental X-ray or when impressions are being made of the mouth.
  • Limiting the level of discomfort felt throughout procedures such as scaling and root planing
  • Preventing the feeling of pain when stitches are being removed
  • Decreasing the amount of pain felt if the patient suffers a complication during a procedure

How are topical anaesthetics available?

Currently, topical anaesthetics are available in several different forms, each suited to different tasks. They can be found in the form of an ointment, spray, gel or even an adhesive patch. You can even get flavoured topical anaesthetics, which are especially useful if they must be applied in the mouth. Some of the flavours on the market are fruits such as banana, strawberry, cherry, raspberry or watermelon. Alternatively, there are flavours such as mint, bubble-gum and even pina colada!

The majority of topical anaesthetics used contain the same medications as are included in injectable local anaesthetic. However, the drugs that are in topical anaesthetics are of a higher concentration so that it will be able to penetrate and act throughout the tissue.

Is topical anaesthetic safe?

Before your dentist administers the topical anaesthetic, they will ensure that it is safe for you. To do this they will analyse your dental and medical history to check that you have not suffered any allergic reactions to other types of anaesthetic. In addition, the dentist will also need to know whether there are any medical conditions that you know of that may affect you, such as hereditary methemoglobinemia.

Using the topical anaesthetics

Before applying the topical anaesthetic, the dentist will first use gauze to dry the area. The anaesthetic is then applied to the area using some sort of application device. The anaesthetic must be held in place for around three minutes to ensure that the area is sufficiently numb. It is also possible that the topical anaesthetic will be applied as a spray or patch instead.

The topical anaesthetic should numb the first two to three millimetres below the surface onto which it was applied. When it has been applied, it should maintain its numbing effect for between fifteen to thirty minutes. Usually, this allows the dentist to have a sufficient amount of time to carry out the procedure, such as removing sutures.

Can I only get topical anaesthetics at the dentist?

No, it is possible to get some topical anaesthetics as over-the-counter products. They are often in the form of a gel or spray and can be used to relieve problems such as sunburn or oral pain. Although these products are the same as in the dental clinic, the drugs in them will be of a lower concentration and so the numbing effect will not be the same.

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