Although largely preventable, dental caries (cavities) and gum disease (periodontitis) are two of the most common chronic diseases of children and teenagers — five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than allergic rhinitis (“hay fever”). According to the CDC, children from low-income families are at highest risk for tooth decay:
Untreated tooth decay can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing, and learning.
- About 1 of 5 (20%) children aged 5 to 11 years have at least one untreated decayed tooth.
- 1 of 7 (13%) adolescents aged 12 to 19 years have at least one untreated decayed tooth.
- The percentage of children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 years with untreated tooth decay is twice as high for those from low-income families (25%) compared with children from higher-income households (11%).
It’s not only children who suffer from poor oral hygiene, says Dr. Regina Benjamin:
The most common cause of tooth loss among adults is untreated periodontal disease. Fifty-three million people live with untreated tooth decay in their permanent teeth. Strikingly, one-quarter of adults aged 65 years and older have lost all of their teeth due to untreated oral disease.
The former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Benjamin says that dental and periodontal disease have adverse health consequences which occur far from the mouth. She makes the mouth-body connection in “Oral Health: The Silent Epidemic,” a 2009 article published in Public Health Reports:
Recent research has indicated possible associations between chronic oral infections and diabetes, heart and lung disease, stroke, and low birthweight or premature births. In other words, oral health refers to the health of our mouth and, ultimately, supports and reflects the health of the entire body.
Even though they will eventually fall out, Catherine Saint Louis warns that parents shouldn’t take baby teeth for granted:
It may be tempting to skip brushing if a toddler puts up a fuss, or allow a picky eater to snack nonstop on their favorite carbohydrates — a recipe for cavities. But once the damage is done, it’s not as easy as pulling them out and waiting for the permanent lineup.
Neglecting baby teeth sets a child up for poor dental health when they are older, and poor overall health as well:
Preschoolers who have cavities in their baby teeth are three times as likely as other preschool children to develop cavities in their permanent teeth, according to an often-quoted study published in the Journal of Dental Research in 2002. A 5-year-old’s oral health can even predict greater decay and disease at 26, especially for poor children, another study found.
This may be caused partly by not brushing with flouride twice daily and sipping sugary drinks over long periods. But it’s also because the bacteria that causes cavities, called caries, signify an infectious disease. So even if one decayed, brown-mottled tooth falls out, an infection may continue ravaging that child’s mouth.
Saint Louis offers this good advice:
Beyond brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, one way to reduce the risk of cavities may be to limit snacks and juice boxes to a 15-minute period so a child’s teeth are not constantly taking an acidic bath. Another is to make sure an adult does the brushing until a child has the dexterity to do it well, which some dentists say is roughly when they can tie their own shoes.
Read more about dental health on The PediaBlog here.