Dental care part of your child’s overall health

Abigail Hayes, 3, gets a sticker at Kids Korner Learning Center in Bellingham in June, 2015, after a visit from the mobile dental program offered by Interfaith, now known as Unity Care NW.
Abigail Hayes, 3, gets a sticker at Kids Korner Learning Center in Bellingham in June, 2015, after a visit from the mobile dental program offered by Interfaith, now known as Unity Care NW. The Bellingham Herald

With the holiday season soon upon us, our tables will undoubtedly be filled with all kinds of goodies – pies, cakes, gingerbread, candy canes, and the like. The holidays wouldn’t be the same without a bit of indulgence.

But sugary treats can bring tooth decay. So this holiday season, think about establishing or reinforcing good dental hygiene habits with your kids. Creating a routine of regular brushing, flossing and regular visits to a dentist makes a great New Year’s resolution!

You may be surprised to learn that dental caries, otherwise known as tooth decay or cavities, is the leading chronic disease in children in the United States. When we think of chronic disease, we tend to think of diabetes or heart disease, not cavities. But, indeed, dental caries is an infectious disease caused by bacteria, that, when untreated, leads to chronic infection.

Increasingly, pediatricians are teaming up with dentists to treat and prevent this most common of unhealthy conditions among children. A healthy mouth is part of a healthy body.

In the United States, nearly 25 percent of toddlers, 53 percent of 6- to 8-year-olds, and more than 50 percent of youths over 15 have dental caries. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tooth decay is four times more common than asthma among teenagers. In children between the ages of 2 and 5, the incidence of tooth decay is increasing, with 54 percent of children in very low-income households suffering from dental caries.

Untreated dental caries can affect the overall health and well-being of children. Anyone who has had a cavity knows of the pain and the possible loss of teeth that is involved.

But dental disease can also impede growth and lead to poor weight gain. Poor oral health can affect speech and appearance. Dental pain and repeated trips to the dentist can result in missed days of school and lower school performance.

Dental disease that progresses into adulthood has been linked to cardiovascular disease, bacterial pneumonia and diabetes. Pregnant women with dental disease can have premature and low-birth-weight babies, and moms can pass the bacteria that cause dental caries on to their newborns. Helping babies get a healthy start in life includes having a mother with a healthy mouth.

All children are at risk for dental caries. The bacteria that cause dental caries live in the mouth and can attach to tooth plaque. The bacteria feed on sugars in the mouth. Within about five minutes after you eat or drink, the bacteria begin making acids. The acid begins to break into the outer surface of the tooth where, in the absence of proper hygiene, it can eventually lead to a cavity.

Too much sugar, prolonged dental contact to milk or juice from a bottle or sippy cup, poor oral hygiene, and a family history of exposure to the bacteria that causes cavities are all risk factors.

But there’s much that can be done to prevent tooth decay. Even before teeth appear, clean your baby’s gums with a washcloth after feedings. Upon your child’s first birthday or as soon as teeth appear, make a trip to the dentist and establish a dental home.

Regular dental cleanings with a fluoride varnish make a difference. Research shows that fluoride applications have reduced tooth decay rates by up to 50 percent. Fluoride makes the tooth more resistant to acid attacks from the bacteria found in plaque.

During this holiday season, encourage good tooth-brushing habits. After a sugary treat, have your child brush or rinse her teeth with water. Brush with a fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristle toothbrush after breakfast and before bed. Supervise your child’s brushing until age 8, teaching him to use a pea-size amount of toothpaste and avoid swallowing. (Children under age 2 can use a rice grain-size amount of toothpaste.)

Make brushing and flossing a family affair. Show your kids how to brush properly, and then be a model of good dental care habits by brushing twice a day and flossing once a day. Healthy mouths make for a happy family.

Dr. Julie Cheek is a pediatrician at the Bellingham clinic of Unity Care NW, formerly known as Interfaith Community Health Center.