To understand the importance of sterilization techniques, it may be useful to go back about a hundred and fifty years. The story we are going to tell is not pleasant, though it does lead to a drastic, positive transformation in patient care. The year is 1847, the place is Vienna, and a doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, has been trying to solve a mystery. There are two maternity clinics; in the first, the maternal mortality rate is 10%, and in the second, it is 2%. Dr. Semmelweis is puzzled by this; the first clinic is staffed by medical students, while the second is staffed by midwives.
Having eliminated many of the differences between the hospital, Semmelweis comes to a stunning conclusion: medical students are handling cadavers, then assisting with births, while midwives never go near cadavers. This was before germ theory was established. Semmelweis concluded that there must be something about the cadavers that was making the new mothers sick. He mandated that his medical students wash their hands, and the mortality rate dropped drastically. Decades after he adopted the policy, hand washing is still enforced quite rigorously throughout medical institutions worldwide.
Hand washing is effective because it kills germs. Sterilization is, in some ways, a more extreme version of hand washing – chemicals, heat, and other tools can be used to kill all the microbes on a given surface. In dentistry, this is absolutely essential to stop the spread of infectious diseases. Dental staff are literally putting their hands and tools in your mouth. Imagine a world where they did that to a patient with the flu, then came to treat you without sterilizing; you’d almost certainly get the flu yourself. Take that logic and extend it to other diseases and you can quickly see why sterilization is so important.
You’ll notice that the staff in an experienced dental clinic will go through great pains to make sure all of their equipment is sterilized. There are a few methods of sterilization and one of the most commonly used is a machine that blasts high pressure steam over dental tools to kill microbes. These tools are then wrapped so they cannot become contaminated, and will be unwrapped only when the dentist begins to use them. After they are used, they go through the sterilization process again. In a similar vein, you’ll notice the staff will also make sure their hands are clean; you can expect a lot of hand washing and the use of sterile medical gloves.
We’ve come a long way since the 1800s; people didn’t even wash their hands back then. Now that we understand germ theory and how diseases are spread, we’ve come up with extremely effective countermeasures to keep patients happy and healthy. When you go to the dentist, you can be sure that they’re doing everything they can to keep you in tip-top shape, from sterilizing their equipment to using their training to spot and take care of any oral health problems you may be developing.