THE nation's teeth are falling out as three years without PRSI cover for dental repairs takes its toll on our oral health.
A new survey of dentists has shown that two-thirds of practitioners have seen a deterioration in their patients' teeth and gums as a direct effect of the cuts to the state dental scheme three years ago.
Three-quarters have seen an increase in the number of patients presenting in pain since January 2010 when the scheme came to a close.
More than 90pc have seen an increase in gum disease, since the Government removed cover for many dental treatments. Gum disease, if untreated, can lead to premature loss of teeth.
With fillings costing up to €200 each and crowns up to €600, a decent set of gnashers is more expensive than the average Christmas present, but neglect can be even more costly.
Chief executive of the Irish Dental Association (IDA) Fintan Hourihan said that while the downturn in dental attendances could partly be explained by the recession, a key factor had been the decimation of the PRSI cover scheme since January 2010.
Before the cutbacks, those making contributions could get a wide range of dental treatments at a subsidised cost.
However, all that is covered now under the scheme is an annual dental check-up.
"People are not going with the same regularity and when they do they are already likely to be in pain," Mr Hourihan said.
He said there was ample evidence of the long-term damage such changes could cause from other countries such as the United States, where tooth decay has been dubbed a "silent epidemic".
"We are heading for a screaming crisis," he added.
Mr Hourihan stressed that many people were continuing to pay €50-€60 a week in PRSI contributions but were only entitled to an annual check-up.
Because people are waiting until they are in pain before presenting for dental care, they may require an extraction or root canal where a filling might have sufficed, he said.
A recent survey, by website irishhealth.com, added to concerns about the nation's dental health after it found that one in five people hadn't attended the dentist in four years or more.
Readers were asked when was the last time they visited a dentist, with 29pc saying it was in the past six months.
A total of 21pc said it was six months to a year ago.
And nearly half of respondents said that they hadn't been to a dentist for at least a year, while 18pc said they hadn't been for one to two years, 11pc said two to four years, and 21pc said more than four years.
Up to 1,500 dentists, hygienists and dental nurses are estimated to have either emigrated or left the sector in the past two to three years, according to Mr Hourihan.
"If a factory closed with the loss of 1,5 00 jobs it would be front-page news, but because it is happening incrementally, it does not attract the same headlines," he said.