When you think of the most common worldwide disease among children, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Diabetes, asthma, the common cold or HIV? These are all good guesses, but they are wrong. You may be surprised to learn early childhood caries (“ECC”) is number one. ECC is considered tooth decay, or cavities, in young kids, and the World Health Organization estimates that globally 60-90% of school-aged children have caries. There are some that believe dental disease is not a huge cause for concern; they would be very wrong.
So what’s the big deal? A lot. Yes baby teeth will follow out, but they serve as an important space maintainer for the big-kid teeth. Without baby teeth, permanent teeth may grow in crooked, or they may crowd one another. If decay is allowed to stay in baby teeth, it can cause pain, abscesses, affect development in the underlying adult tooth and this infection can spread to other parts of the body. Good oral hygiene habits formed early in life can also impact the future health of your child. Several studies suggest oral infections in adults are linked to:
- Heart disease
- Premature low-weight births
- Some cancers
Then there is the psychological toll for those children that hide their smile for fear of being made fun of in class or the many school and work days parents and children have to miss for oral pain and/or dental appointments. In fact, 51 million school hours and 164 million work hours are missed annually in the United States as a result of dental related illnesses.
A study published in 2011 found some important results. They determined that children with poor oral health were about 3 times more likely to miss school as a result of dental pain. More importantly, absences caused by dental pain or infection were associated with poorer school performance compared with that of children whose absences were for routine dental care. So what is the take home message? Good oral hygiene does more than just prevent a painful tooth; it can allow your child to succeed and may prevent a lifetime of health issues!
What is going on in our mouths that cause this? We have 600-700 types of bacteria in our mouths. Before you try to rinse your mouth out with antibiotic hand moisturizer, know some are beneficial, some are harmful. When we eat simple sugars (chips, soda, fruit snacks, juices-all the “good stuff”), these bad bacteria digest the simple sugar and excrete acid. Additionally, the environment in our mouths becomes more acidic whenever we eat anything; it is our bodies’ way of breaking down foods. Now our teeth can handle many things, but constant exposure to acid is not one of them. The outer white stuff we see on teeth is enamel, and it is the hardest tissue in the human body. With all this acid around enamel starts to break down and become porous, which allows more bacteria to invade in these cracks, and the process continues. Before we know it, we have a hole in our teeth and a cavity is born. Closing arguments: host (teeth) plus bacteria and a food supply (sugar) causes cavities. There is not such thing as soft teeth, because as we just learned, enamel is the hardest tissue in the human body!
There is one other fact that separates dental disease from the rest of the others mentioned above. It is completely preventable. So what can you do at home? Here are some easy tips that will help to ensure your child’s teeth last a lifetime:
- Children should begin to see a dentist around their first birthday.
- Start brushing your child’s teeth as soon as teeth start to show, not only when they start school. This allows children to get used to someone poking around in their mouths. Fingertip toothbrushes are a great start for parents and can be found at many local drugstores or ordered online.
- Parents should continue to help their children brush their teeth until the child learns how to write in cursive. This is when they have the hand dexterity to brush their own teeth. You may let your child brush his or her own teeth, but then “follow up” with your own brushing of the child’s teeth.
- Drink tap water and brush your child’s teeth with fluoridated toothpaste. Tap water has fluoride. Bottle water does not. Fluoride not only prevents decay but also allows teeth to recover or remineralize after a minimal amount of decay has begun. Fluoridation is so important the U.S. Center for Disease Control lists water fluoridation as one of the “ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.” That’s a big deal.
- You hear it all the time, but be sure your child brushes twice a day and flosses at least once per day, especially before bed. Bacteria start making a film or plaque within hours of your last brushing. This means they stick to your tooth’s surface easier, which means they can secrete acid straight onto the tooth. Brushing helps break all this apart. Flossing gets all those in-between spaces that brushing can’t help, which means no more steak, chicken, or popcorn kernels (potential food sources for bacteria) are lodged in between our teeth.
- Constant exposure to sugar throughout the day is worse than a lot of sugar all at once. Snacking all day will cause more cavities than sugar consumption limited to mealtimes. This means:
- Only provide sugar (milk, juice, chips, dessert) at mealtime.
- Strongly avoid giving your child a bottle of milk or juice to enjoy at bedtime. This can result in the well known “bottle rot.”
- If you must give them a bottle with the sugary stuff, dilute it with water (50/50 is a pretty good ratio).
- Use non-sugary drink mixes such as Crystal Light to flavor tap water.
- If your child continues to eat sugary foods throughout the day, have them carry a bottle of water they can swish with after eating sugary foods.
- Is your child a gum chewer? This actually helps prevent cavities as long as it is sugar-free gum. Many of the sugar-free gums are the ones you typically see at the grocery store checkout line, but check the ingredients on the back. Xylitol is the sweetener we want to see.
- If possible, avoid sharing toothbrushes. Adults tend to have more bacteria in their mouths, including the “bad” bacteria, which means you do not want to spread it to your child.
Remember, regular six-month check-ups are important, but good oral health care must be practiced daily.