Oral health care is a critical part of a child’s development. Without it, they’re susceptible to conditions that can be both painful and embarrassing. Each year during National Children’s Dental Health Month, health providers and educators promote the importance of oral hygiene and pediatric care. In support of this initiative, here are the most common dental problems found among children:
- Cavities: A cavity is a small hole that penetrates the inner and outer layer of a tooth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s one of the biggest chronic diseases among children in the United States. When left untreated, cavities can grow larger, deeper and spread to other areas of the mouth. Children should brush and floss regularly and limit sticky snacks like fruit chews. If needed, a dentist can repair a cavity with a restorative treatment called a filling, that consists of an amalgam (metal-based) or composite resin (ceramic-based) substance.
- Gum Disease: Periodontitis, also known as gum disease, is a serious infection caused by poor dental hygiene, prescription medications or nutritional deficiencies. It’s characterized by red swollen gums, bleeding, soreness, loose, or sensitive teeth as well as bad breath. To prevent gum disease, children should brush and floss daily. If symptoms are already present, visit a dentist for a professional cleaning to remove pockets and plaque below the gumline. Dentists may also recommend antibiotic gel or tablets to reduce bacteria.
- Lack of Fluoride: Fluoride is a mineral that can be found in water, toothpaste, mouthwash and supplements. It helps to strengthen and protect enamel—the hard, outer layer of the tooth—from potential decay. If found early, fluoride can help reverse topical damage. For children, it supports long-term dental health by aiding the growth and development of permanent teeth. Parents should talk to a dentist about fluoride requirements for their child’s individual needs.
- Thumb Sucking: Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that can occur as early as the womb. It’s often used as a soothing technique to help children feel calm and secure. In some cases, persistent thumb sucking can negatively affect incoming teeth. It may cause misalignment and alter the shape of the jaw or roof of the mouth. Children usually stop this behavior between two and four years old. If not, parents should slowly wean them off by encouraging new activities. It’s important to seek other coping mechanisms that are effective and appropriate.
- Tooth Decay: The mouth is home to hundreds of species of bacteria. When combined with sugar, starches and other substances, they create acids that can eat away at teeth. This breakdown of enamel is called tooth decay. To prevent this, children should brush twice a day and thoroughly floss to remove food. They should also consume healthy, balanced meals, avoiding sugary snacks and drinks. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against fruit juices during a child’s first year. For children ages one to six, daily juice intake should not exceed 4 to 6 ounces.
Long-term Pediatric Dental Care
It’s important to stay on top of dental visits to monitor growth and minimize problems. The general rule is for children to visit every six months for healthy maintenance. Yet, this can change based on individual need and the dentist’s instruction. Children should have their first pediatric dental appointment by 10 or 12 months. By two years old, parents can begin implementing fluoride-based products into a daily routine. For specific guidelines, talk to your dentist.
By Lisa L. Knowles, D.D.S., an associate dental consultant and dental director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health tips, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.
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