February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, and it’s quite likely you have heard stories and read articles about such things as “baby bottle decay,” teaching your toddler how to brush properly, and when to set up your child’s first dental appointment (by age 1 or within six months of when the first tooth comes in).
But what about helping teens take care of their dental health? Many parents assume that by the time their children become teenagers, worrying about tooth decay is the least of their problems. However, it is during this time of a child’s life that some of the worst atrocities are committed toward their teeth!
- Poor diet. Adolescence is the time when kids’ meals are not heavily monitored by parents, thus the consumption of soft drinks, candy and high-carbohydrate foods tends to increase. This combination is bad for teens’ teeth and for their bones. Phosphoric acid and citric acid erode tooth enamel, which is the main barrier that our teeth have against decay. Too much sugar — combined with a susceptible tooth, bacteria growth and poor saliva output — creates an environment that is ripe for a cavity to develop.
- Smoking and smokeless tobacco. Teens and adolescents are likely to explore some of these behaviors and possibly get addicted to them. Make sure you are explaining to them all of the dangers, including those to a teen’s teeth. Smoking can contribute to bad breath, stained teeth, loss of teeth and jawbone, loss of taste, gum recession, oral cancer and mouth sores. Chewing tobacco and other smokeless tobaccos such as snus, snuff and dip can cause oral cancer, make individuals more susceptible to tooth decay due to the high sugar content, and irritate the gums, leading to gum disease.
- Vaping and electronic cigarettes. The use of e-cigarettes is growing among teens, and as of now, there are very few studies on the use of e-cigarettes and oral health. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, part of the National Institutes for Health, has proposed more research in order to fill the gap and better inform consumers, professionals and regulators about the effects of e-cigarette aerosol mixtures on the mouth, gums and the rest of the oral cavity.
- Oral piercing. Like tattooing, piercing is one of today’s forms of body-art and self-expression among teens. Piercing the tongue, lips, cheeks or uvula (the tiny tissue that hangs at the back of the throat) is not as safe as some believe. The mouth’s moist environment is home to huge amounts of breeding bacteria and is an ideal place for infection. An oral piercing can interfere with speech, chewing or swallowing, and it may also cause: excessive drooling; infection, pain and swelling; chipped or cracked teeth; injuries to the gums; damage to fillings; increased saliva flow; hypersensitivity to metals; scar tissue; and nerve damage.
- Eating Disorders. Anorexia and bulimia can be devastating to oral health and overall health. If a teen is not getting proper nutrition, gums and other soft tissue inside the mouth may bleed easily, and the teen may experience chronic dry mouth. If a teen is throwing up often, strong stomach acid repeatedly flows over teeth and can cause a loss of enamel that makes teeth change in color, shape and length, and they can break off easily.
Talk to your teen about these issues and, if needed, seek counseling. Oral health is often a window to an individual’s overall health, so if you notice changes in oral health, make sure you talk to your dentist and other health care practitioners.