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Most people know that the letters “DDS” identify a person as a general dentist. But not everyone knows what they stand for. DDS is short for “Doctor of Dental Surgery” and refers to the degree received upon completion of dental school.

If your dentist isn’t a DDS, don’t worry, it doesn’t mean he or she hasn’t graduated. Many universities award a similar degree called a DMD (Doctor of Dental Medicine) instead. Both titles require the same level of education. In fact, according to the American Dental Association, the degrees are identical.

What Does a DDS Do?

Dentists are physicians of the mouth, responsible for diagnosing and treating dental problems with the teeth, gums or other tissues. One of their most important jobs is to provide regular preventive dentistry to head off serious dental issues before they start. Depending on their patients’ needs, general dentists often:

  • Remove tooth decay and fill cavities
  • Review dental X-rays
  • Teach proper oral hygiene habits
  • Screen for oral cancer and other mouth-related conditions
  • Repair cracked and chipped teeth
  • Correct imperfections with dental braces, teeth whitening or veneers
  • Fit and place prosthetics like a dental bridge or dentures

Remember, regular dental visits give your dentist the change to catch small problems early on, which can mean fewer dental appointments down the road.

How They Earned Their “License to Drill”

As you might expect, becoming a dentist requires a lot of education. First, each aspiring DDS must complete an undergraduate degree program, which typically takes three or more years. Then it’s off to four years of dental school, following curriculum approved by the ADA Commission on Dental Accreditation.

In many cases, doctors also pursue postgraduate education in order to become a dental specialist. After graduation, dentists must also go through a rigorous licensing process. While the specifics vary by state, this process typically includes a written examination and a practical evaluation.

In short, by the time a general dentist begins treating patients, he or she has received an average of 7 to 10 years of education, including graduation from an accredited dental school. A practicing dentist must also have satisfied the extensive licensing criteria set by their state dental board.

Which Dentist Is Right for Me?

General dentists (DDS or DMD) perform the widest range of dental treatment and are therefore a great choice for most dental patients. However, in some cases you may need a dentist who specializes in a particular type of care. Your DDS may recommend you to one of the following dental specialists:

  • Orthodontist (dental braces)
  • Pediatric dentist (“kid dentist”)
  • Oral surgeon (dental surgery, including a tooth extraction)
  • Endodontists (root canal)
  • Periodontist (gum disease treatment)
  • Prosthodontist (missing teeth)