Woman at the dentist, dental examination.

Palpable fear ... dentists strive to reduce patient anxiety.

Women would rather get a pap smear than go to the dentist. Really? Apparently so, according to a survey conducted by Oral-B.

Additionally, more than half (53 per cent) of the 1004 people, aged 18 to 64, surveyed said that they would rather face public humiliation and be caught with toilet paper attached to their shoe, or even fall over in front of a crowd. With more than eight in ten (83 per cent) admitting they are anxious about visiting the dentist, it's clear dental distress is widespread amongst Australians.

"'Dentophobia' is a very real issue which is impacting on Australia's oral health," said clinical psychologist, Dr Cindy Nour.

"The fear of visiting the dentist that's held by many varies from mild uneasiness, experienced by most of us, to extreme fear, resulting in a patient avoiding the visit altogether."

Avoiding visits is concerning when dental decay is ubiquitous within the adult population. According to the National Survey of Adult Oral Health over 95 per cent of people born before 1970 had some experience of dental decay, and 76 per cent among people in the generation, born 1970–90. Dental decay is also prevalent among Australian children. The Child Dental Health Surveys Australia found it affects more than half of all 6-year-old children.

Dr Peter Alldritt, Chairman of the Australian Dental Association's oral health committee, is well aware of the statistics for dental decay, but is shocked about the degree of dentophobia.

"Personally, I was surprised by that result - that the figure is as high," he says. "But, it's a good reminder to dental professionals that we should make visits to the dentist that little bit more comfortable."

In his experience, fear of the dentist is generally a problem with older members of the community who have had a negative experience as a child.

"For children who have no preconceptions or negative experiences, it [can be] a lot of fun," he says. "But, things are so much better than 10 years ago."

He says that dentists are now given training to make the experience more positive for the patient.

"There's a number of things we do to make it more comfortable," he says. "Simple things - just communication - help. If a patient is given information and you explain what you're going to do then that takes the fear away - the fear of the unknown.

"Also, we can break down the treatment into manageable amounts - do a few minutes and then have a break. If they lift up their hand, you will stop - it's letting them know they're in control of the appointment. That automatically makes them feel more relaxed."

Breathing and relaxation techniques are also helpful, as are distractions. "A lot of people bring in their own digital media, which is a great distraction and can take their mind off it," Dr Alldritt says.

The drugs are also more effective these days, he says. "Oral medication - valium or a sedative - will take the edge off. There's gel, which is a topical anaesthetic, that numbs the gums ... before an injection. And laughing gas is also a form of sedation that helps people feel more relaxed and less anxious about the procedure.

"Most fillings are smaller than in days gone by and set faster. Procedures don't take as long and drills don't vibrate as much as they used to."

But, if none of this eases your fear factor, Alldritt says that some dentists are now trained in hypnosis and as a last resort, you can always go to hospital for full sedation before a procedure.

Whatever you choose, not going at all is the worst thing you can do. "Putting off regular dental checks lead to more severe oral health problems in the future," says Dr Nour.

Dr Alldritt agrees. "My advice is that people who put off visits to the dentist only become more anxious because they're building it up. There are often less problems than they thought there would be, so [once they go] they often feel a great sense of relief."

How often you should go depends on what your risk is, he says. "If you've had cavaties, then you should go every six months. If you have healthy teeth then go for a check up once a year.

"Everything is geared towards comfort now and it's better to have something diagnosed while it's a minor problem - it's cheaper to fix and less invasive."