Dental cavities are entirely preventable in children; however, up to 40 percent of children will have experienced tooth decay by kindergarten. In fact, cavities in childhood are so prevalent that they are the leading chronic disease amongst elementary and high school students.
These unfavorable statistics underlie an important fact: Too many children aren’t getting the dental care they need. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 19 percent of children who are between age two and 19 have untreated cavities. No parent wants their child to suffer, but they are putting their child’s health at risk by ignoring the need for good oral care. Untreated cavities don’t go away; they get bigger and can be the source of severe pain, need for root canals, and loss of teeth.
In worst cases, poor oral health in children can affect learning, speech development, and self-esteem. A study by the U.S. Surgeon General found that 51 million school hours are lost each year because of dental-related illness. Young children may be unable to verbalize discomfort caused by toothaches. Studies show they are also likely to score lower on tests and have trouble concentrating.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that tooth brushing should start in babyhood and the first preventive dental visit by a child’s first birthday. Children can have a high likelihood of remaining cavity-free through good oral hygiene at home and regular preventive dentistry.
From baby teeth to the teen years
To appropriately develop dental care regimens for children, start by understanding the importance of the baby teeth. These are the primary teeth that start to erupt when babies are about six months old. It’s true that baby teeth will eventually fall out, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important for how the permanent teeth develop.
When a decayed baby tooth is lost too early, it will leave behind an empty space that allows the permanent tooth to drift. Other permanent teeth emerge in or near that space, resulting in the crooked or crowded adult teeth.
This is of utmost importance: Never put a baby into the crib with a bottle of milk or juice. When the infant falls asleep while sucking on the bottle, sugars and proteins in the milk or juice will linger on the teeth. Over time, the result is a mouthful of decay; in some cases the teeth must be extracted.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends gently cleaning a baby’s teeth with a soft cloth or baby’s toothbrush twice daily. Once a child can spit and not swallow, usually by age two or three, introduce a dab of fluoride toothpaste.
Babies should be taken to the dentist for a well check-up by their first birthdays. The first visit is likely to be short and not involve treatment. It allows the dentist to look for any abnormalities and helps introduce the baby to dental care in a non-threatening way.
One of the payoffs of early preventive care is the likelihood of financial savings. A study reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that dental costs were 40 percent lower over a five-year period for children who received dental care before age one compared to those who were taken at an older age.
Regular brushing and flossing every day needs to become second nature for children as they grow older. Additionally, step up reminders about good oral hygiene for teenagers. Adolescence is when cavities can spike; some research shows that the adolescents have the highest rate of cavities compared to other age groups. Part of the problem may be decreased attention to oral hygiene.
Few teens can imagine being middle-aged, but once in their 40s and 50s may look back and be grateful for the encouragement. The benefits of establishing good oral health habits early on extend far into adulthood. Dental problems such as gum infections and tooth loss that can plague adults are far less likely to occur.
Dental health affects overall health
Further, it is now well established that the mouth is a window into overall health, another plus for going into adulthood with good dental care established in childhood. Gum infections, for example, arising from poor dental hygiene may worsen diabetes. Gum infections also have been associated with heart disease.
The bottom line: Good dental care is crucial for children from infancy to adolescence. None should have to suffer needlessly from painful tooth decay.
Parents should be helping their children learn good oral health habits that will last a lifetime and taking them regularly to a dentist for preventive care. Every child needs the best opportunity for good oral health.
About the Author
Nicholas M. Kavouklis DMD (“Dr. Nick”) is a graduate of the University of Florida College of Dentistry. Dr. Nick maintains a general practice in Tampa and is founder of two dental insurance companies that have serviced over 1,000,000 policyholders since 1997. He currently serves as President of Argus Dental Plan, which offers Prepaid Dental Plans, Dental Discount Plans and Dental PPO as well as packages for individuals, families, employer groups, governmental agencies, associations, and large HMO Medicare/Medicaid recipients. Dr. Nick also developed a line of natural oral care products and specializes in comprehensive dental care for seniors in nursing homes