Why does the anaesthetist ask me to open my mouth and look at my teeth as part of the anaesthetic assessment?

With the induction of anaesthesia, most patients lose the ability to maintain an open airway and almost invariably stop breathing. If left unattended, a patient will desaturate (falling oxygen levels in the blood) within a 1 – 3 minutes. The primary responsibility of the anaesthetist is to prevent this happening and to maintain adequate ventilation for the patient. There are various manoeuvres the anaesthetist will use and this frequently involves using an airway device such as a laryngeal mask or an endotracheal tube.

Examining a patients airway carefully before embarking on administering an anaesthetic is essential to preparing for problems that may occur. Some patients have difficult airways and may be either difficult to ventilate or intubate. There are numerous special devices available to facilitate this process when difficulties are encountered. However as it takes less than 3 minutes for a non-breathing patient to desaturate, the anaesthetist has to be prepared and ready for this event.

Examination of the teeth is important as the insertion of the airway devices into the mouth can damage loose teeth/caps/crowns. If the anaesthetist is aware of the position of these teeth, they can usually adjust their technique to avoid causing any damage.