Tooth Decay Among American Children Nears Epidemic Levels

Is there such a thing as “too early” to start brushing your teeth? Not according to a new educational campaign from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD).

The previously accepted wisdom was that children don’t need to see a dentist until they reach one year old. But Warren Brill, president of the AAPD, claims that the earlier, the better.

“As soon as you have a tooth you have the possibility of getting decay,” says Brill. “We want to see kids as early as possible so we are sure the parents know the proper oral hygiene techniques for infants and toddlers.”

Why the shift in policy? Brill and his colleagues believe the situation is becoming out of control. “We’re reaching epidemic proportions of a rapid form of tooth decay, especially in younger children, often from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood tooth decay is five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever.

So what’s really at stake?

A common excuse is that a child’s “baby teeth” will fall out eventually anyway, so why show them extra attention? However, decay can lead to infection, which can lead to severe pain and even tooth loss. A missing tooth in a toddler’s mouth makes a malocclusion more likely when permanent teeth begin erupting.

Perhaps equally as important as the immediate health of a child’s baby teeth is the long-term impact of instilling good dental habits. Children who care about their oral health will continue to care about it into adulthood, drastically decreasing the chances that they’ll need extreme measures later in life — e.g. deep teeth cleaning (scaling and planing applied directly to the root of a tooth to counteract early-stage periodontal disease), orthodontic correction, or even dental implants.

Constant parental vigilance is key. Parents should brush their children’s teeth (or heavily assist in the brushing) until age five, and children should be supervised while brushing until age seven or eight. Flossing should start as soon as a child has two teeth that are touching.

Even into the teenage years, parents should continue to monitor their children’s oral health. Brill cites the advent of sugary “high-energy” drinks as a major problem. “Teens should not be drinking those drinks,” he says. “They’re dental poison, so to speak, because they just contain so much sugar.”


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