Dentist vs. Periodontist: What Are the Differences?

Updated January 17, 2023

Dentists and periodontists both help patients maintain and improve their oral health. Despite this similarity, these two careers have different duties, educational requirements, skills and salaries. Understanding how a dentist and a periodontist vary can help you evaluate which career may suit you best and align with your career goals.

In this article, we discuss the roles of dentists and periodontists and explain the key differences between the two professions.

What is a dentist?

A dentist is a medical doctor who specializes in oral health. Dentists help their patients prevent issues with their teeth, their gums and other areas of the mouth. They improve oral health by identifying and treating concerns such as cavities, gingivitis and gum disease. Dentists typically treat patients of all ages, although some prefer to provide care for either adults or children. There are many areas within dentistry you can specialize in, including:

  • Pediatrics: This is a type of dental care that uses techniques specifically developed for children. You care for children's teeth, gums and mouths through various childhood stages.

  • Orthodontics: This area of dental care corrects alignment issues with the teeth, the jaw and bite patterns. This includes the treatment of facial growth, otherwise known as dentofacial orthopedics.

  • Periodontics: Periodontics focuses on the supporting structures of the teeth, like the gums. Periodontists prevent and treat diseases that affect these structures, such as the gingiva, alveolar bone, cementum and periodontal ligament.

  • Endodontics: This involves the root of the tooth and the sensitive tissue inside it, known as the pulp. Endodontists diagnose and treat the complex causes of tooth pain, perform root canals and strive to maintain the integrity of individuals' natural teeth.

  • Prosthodontics: This type of dental care involves replacements for teeth or parts of the teeth. Prosthodontists complete cosmetic procedures and may perform procedures like the placement of crowns, dentures or bridges or the treatment of temporomandibular disorders.

  • Pathology: Pathology is a lab-based specialty that focuses on the diagnosis and study of oral diseases. This branch specializes in identifying the nature and the type of diseases that afflict the maxillofacial region.

  • Radiology: This dental specialty involves interpreting and studying intraoral or extraoral X-rays of the teeth and jaws. Intraoral X-rays are the most commonly used radiology technique, and they can identify and display different aspects of the teeth.

Related: 12 Types of Dentists (Plus Salaries and Career Requirements)

What is a periodontist?

A periodontist is a dentist who specializes in the treatment of the gums and the bones that support the teeth. As dentists, periodontists have a comprehensive knowledge of primary dental care. They only treat patients who require treatment for gum diseases that extend beyond mild gingivitis. They may also perform dentistry services, such as dental implants and tooth extractions. Levels of gum disease periodontists treat include:

  • Mild periodontal disease: This is the second stage of periodontal disease, which occurs when gingivitis worsens. Periodontists can help patients manage this disease.

  • Moderate periodontal disease: In the third stage, periodontal disease has the same symptoms as the previous stage, but they've worsened. Periodontists often perform deep cleanings at this stage.

  • Advanced periodontal disease: This is the most advanced stage of periodontal disease. Periodontists often treat the disease at this progression with surgery and dental implants.

Here are some treatments that periodontists may provide to stop or slow the progression of disease at different stages:

  • Scaling and root planing: Scaling and root planing, also known as deep cleaning, involves cleaning the plaque and tartar buildup above and below the gumline that causes gum disease.

  • Gum graft surgery: Gum graft surgery involves using tissue from the roof of a patient's mouth to tighten open pockets between the gums and teeth. This procedure corrects thinning or receding gums, protects and covers exposed teeth and roots and volumizes the gumline.

  • Laser treatments: Laser treatments allow periodontists to quickly, safely and effectively remove inflamed gum tissue with a decreased risk of infection, sensitivity and bleeding during recovery. This procedure normally occurs with scaling to remove excess plaque from the gumline.

  • Pocket reduction procedures: After administering anesthesia, periodontists perform a minor surgery in which they fold back the gums to remove bacteria. If there's severe bone loss due to infection, they normally perform a bone graft before reattaching the gum tissue to the teeth.

Related: 8 Dental Field Jobs (With Salary, Duties and Education)

Dentist vs. periodontist

Dentists and periodontists have many of the same qualifications, but they focus on different aspects of dental care. Here are some differences between these two dental experts:

Primary job duties

Though dentists and periodontists often work together to promote oral health, their responsibilities differ. Review the duties of each profession:

Dentist duties

Doctors who use the title of "dentist" or "general dentist" provide a range of basic dental care services, including:

  • Removing decay from teeth and filling cavities

  • Removing or repairing damaged teeth

  • Sealing or whitening teeth

  • Administering anesthetics to patients during procedures to ease pain

  • Prescribing medications

  • Performing and examining X-rays of teeth, jaws, gums and surrounding areas to diagnose problems

  • Making models and determining measurements for dental appliances like dentures

  • Educating patients about diet choices and proper care of the teeth and gums, including flossing and the use of fluoride

  • Monitoring and following up with patients, depending on the severity of the condition

  • Performing administrative tasks, such as purchasing equipment and office supplies

  • Supervising other dental specialists and administrative staff

Related: The Pros and Cons of Being a Dentist

Periodontist duties

While dentists can treat more complex dental issues, they typically refer patients with these issues to a specialist, like a periodontist. As gum experts, periodontists have a wide range of duties, including:

  • Diagnosing and treating patients with gum issues and oral bone loss, such as tooth decay or fractures

  • Determining the cause of periodontal disease and other oral health problems

  • Performing surgery and other surgical procedures to treat specific conditions

  • Developing treatment plans for patients

  • Providing consultation services, such as explaining treatment options and procedures to patients

  • Providing preventive treatment and prescribing medications and treatments for patients with periodontal disease to help them maintain dental health

  • Researching topics about periodontal disease and treatment methods

Related: How To Become a Pediatric Dentist

Education and training

To become a dentist of any kind, candidates must first earn an undergraduate degree. Most students receive a bachelor's degree in biological science, such as molecular biology or biochemistry. They then attend dental school for an additional four years to become a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry (DMD).

After completing dental school, a graduate can begin a career as a general dentist. Those who wish to specialize in periodontics complete an additional two or three years of training in periodontal treatments and procedures prior to beginning their practice.

Related: Degrees and Specializations in Dentistry You Can Start Pursuing Before Dental School

Licensure and certification

Every state has its own dental licensing requirements, which the state's board of dentistry determines. Here are the basic requirements for all dentists who practice in the United States:

  • Graduate from an accredited DDS or DMD program

  • Have passing scores on both parts of the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE)

  • Complete a clinical examination or postgraduate education

The American Board of Periodontology (ABP) requires you to receive a dental license and become board-certified as a periodontist. The board requires candidates to apply for and take a qualifying exam, followed by an oral exam.

Related: What Is an Oral Surgeon? A Definitive Guide

Specialized skills

Both dentists and periodontists require soft skills, such as communication and interpersonal skills, empathy, organization, teamwork, attention to detail and analytical thinking. Besides clinical skills, dentists and periodontists also require technical skills, as they work with various medical equipment like computer software, X-ray machines, magnifiers, drills, lasers, forceps, probes and scalpels.

These tools help them check pain severity and hole depth. They can use their technical skills to perform procedures, analyze data and determine the best treatment options for patients.

Hard skills in dentistry vary depending on the specialty. Periodontists need the same skills as general dentists, but they also require specialized competencies in surgical procedures for gum disease and tooth loss. To maintain your skills and knowledge as a dentist or periodontist, consider staying updated on new research and the latest advances in medical best practices.

Read more: Dentist Skills: Definition and Examples

Average salary

Dentists and periodontists both earn high salaries that reflect their extensive education, their clinical training and the oral health care services they provide to patients. Dentists who practice general dentistry earn an average of $185,803 per year, while periodontists make an average of $225,523 per year. Their salaries can vary based on their years of experience and region. You can also engage in advanced dental education programs to potentially earn a higher income.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.

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