Tooth decay in youth and children has been on the rise again for the first time since the 1990s. From the 1970s until the 1990s, tooth decay (dental caries) in youth and children declined. The importance of dental care for children became more apparent, access became easier for most families and increasing community water fluoridation ensured children’s teeth were protected against decay.
There has been an alarming trend in dental caries in children since the 1990s, however, with a small, yet significant rise in the tooth decay in youth and children ages 2 – 11. 42% of children ages 2 to 11 have had tooth decay in their primary (baby) teeth, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Children in lower income families, Hispanic children and Black children have more decay than Caucasian children and children from families with middle and higher incomes.
The Center for Disease Control confirms the findings of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in their report “Trends in Oral Health Status – United States, 1988-1994 and 1999-2004,” noting the rise in dental caries in primary teeth in children aged 3 to 5 years.
There is good news when it comes to the trends in bad teeth in kids, however. According to the same source from the CDC, there have been significant improvements in several areas. Decay in permanent teeth decreased for children, adults and teens. In addition, more than one-third of youth aged 12 to 19 years have had dental sealants used. Dental sealants are a plastic coating applied to the teeth to help prevent decay.
Both reports show racial and ethnic disparities, along with definite associations to income levels. Thirty-one percent of Mexican-American children aged 6 to 11 showed tooth decay in their permanent teeth, while only 19 percent of non-Hispanic white children had permanent tooth decay. Three times as many children from families living below the federal poverty line had untreated decay, as did children with family income above the poverty line.
Dr. Bruce A. Dye, the head author of the CDC’s report had this to say, “This report shows that while we are continuing to make strides in prevention of tooth decay, this disease clearly remains a problem for some racial and ethnic groups, many of whom have more treated and untreated tooth decay compared with other groups.”
Communities began fluoridating water as early as 1945, in Grand Rapids, Michigan and fluoridation remains an effective tool in dental care. Fluoridation is certainly an important part of healthy teeth in children and adults, but clearly, it is not the only significant factor in bad teeth in children. Regular dental checkups and treatment from a dental home are critical to keeping teeth healthy and strong.
Parents can also play a huge role in dental health of children by restricting sugary snacks and making sure children drink plenty of water after eating or drinking other food items. Most food items will break down into simple sugars as part of the digestive process and it is important that these sugars are rinsed off the teeth, where they can feed bacteria, leading to decay. By continuing to take the proper steps to fight dental caries, all children in America can have healthy, beautiful smiles that last a lifetime.