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February is National Children's Dental Health Month

Image of Margo Kerrigan

Margo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office

February 2012 - February is designated as National Children's Dental Health Month. The most pressing dental health issue facing our children is dental decay. In fact, dental decay is one of the most common diseases of childhood; it is five times as common as asthma and seven times as common as hay fever. The daily reality for children with untreated decay is often persistent pain, inability to eat comfortably or chew well, embarrassment at discolored or damaged teeth, and distraction from play and learning. More than 51 million school hours are lost each year because of dental related illness.

In California over 70% of the third graders have or have had dental decay; this is one of the worst rates in the United States. National studies have revealed that American Indian and Alaskan Native children suffer even higher rates of dental decay. The epidemic rate of untreated decay among younger children makes it imperative that they receive early preventive care and education.

In order to prevent dental decay it is important to understand how and why decay happens. First, dental decay is caused by bacteria and is transmissible. The bacteria can be transmitted from mother or caregiver to the child or between children. Second, certain foods promote decay; sweet and starchy foods (chips and crackers) or extra sticky foods should be avoided. And thirdly, poor oral hygiene habits contribute to the number and severity of dental decay.

Of course dental decay is not the only oral health issue of concern for children. Accidents cause a large number of injuries to teeth and oral tissues. Skateboards, sports, bicycles and automobile accidents account for most of these injuries.

What can Parents and Caregivers Do?

  • Pregnant women should get prenatal care, avoid tobacco, alcohol and check with a doctor before taking medications.
  • Pregnant women should see a dentist ASAP in order to assess the chances that they may have the bacteria that cause decay and receive needed dental treatment.
  • Put only water in your baby's bottle at bedtime or naptime. Milk, formula, juices and other drinks contain sugars. Prolonged exposure to sugary drinks while baby sleeps increases the risk of tooth decay.
  • Take your child to the dentist before their first birthday, and every six months thereafter.
  • Protect your child's teeth with fluoride. Use fluoridated toothpaste, putting on only a pea-sized amount on your child's toothbrush. If your drinking water is not fluoridated, talk to a dentist or physician about the best way to protect your child's teeth.
  • Encourage your children to eat regular nutritious meals and avoid frequent between meal snacking.
  • Begin brushing your child's teeth as soon as the first tooth erupts. Parents should brush young children's teeth until the child has the dexterity to brush their own.
  • Talk to your child's dentist about dental sealants, which protect teeth from decay.
  • Make sure your child wears a helmet when bicycling and skateboarding and uses protective headgear and mouth guards in other sports activities.
  • The use of proper car seats and seat belts at all times.

National Children's Dental Health Month is a perfect time to double our efforts to prevent the dental decay and injuries that have such a devastating impact on our children. If you would like further information please go to the IHS California Area Office Dental web page.


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