With February being National Children’s Dental Health Month, we want to focus on kids in this week’s blog.
Though almost entirely preventable, tooth decay remains the most common chronic childhood disease in the U.S. Oral health problems account for nearly one-third (30 percent) of U.S. children ages 6 to 12 missing more than 9 million school days.
Poor oral health can have a profound effect on the lives of children including painful cavities, lower school attendance, malnutrition, low self-esteem, diminished employment opportunities later in life, and in some cases, life-threatening health consequences.
Less than a year ago a 4-year-old Vancouver boy died from anesthesia, which he received to treat his severe cavities. Anesthesia is commonly used to sedate very young children during major dental treatments. The death of this little boy was an avoidable tragedy. No child should die from a preventable disease. And yet it continues to happen, especially among children from disadvantaged families. We have an obligation to prevent dental disease in all children, with no one left behind. Just like no child should go hungry, no child should suffer the pain and embarrassment of untreated cavities.
Children’s oral health also impacts parents. Some 71 percent of parents cite their child’s oral health as a top concern that they think about daily. A Delta Dental study finds that 45 percent of U.S. parents report missing work due to their children’s oral health issues.
While we’ve made significant progress in children’s oral health outcomes, we still have more work to do to make sure kids don’t suffer from cavities and severe tooth decay. According to the Smile Survey, a children’s oral health assessment that is conducted every five years throughout the state, more than half (53 percent) of third-grade students in the state have at least one cavity. Seventeen percent have rampant decay (cavities in 7 or more teeth).
There are significant oral health disparities that need to be addressed. The state evaluation notes that children of color and children living in lower-income households experience higher rates of tooth decay than their white and middle to higher-income counterparts. For example, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native children have a rate of decay that is 50% higher than their white peers. Third-grade children from low-income households suffer from rampant decay at twice the rate of children from higher-income households. It is essential that we address these disparities in access and outcomes.
Though good oral hygiene, healthy eating habits, and oral health awareness influence dental health, access to essential preventive care and early oral health treatment remains a barrier. A little more than half (53 percent) of the state’s youngest Medicaid-covered children saw a dentist in 2016. That is why Oral Health Watch supports efforts to improve access to care through programs such as Access to Baby and Child Dentistry and by having pediatricians, school nurses, and other healthcare professionals incorporate oral health into routine checkups. Additionally, DenistLink is a free tool to help connect patients of all ages to dental care.
It used to be thought that cavities in a child’s primary teeth were no concern. But health professionals know now that good oral health in the early years sets a child on a lifelong path of healthy living. Studies have found that children who have tooth decay in their primary teeth are more likely to have cavities in their adult teeth, affecting their oral and overall health for a lifetime.