Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina

Wednesday Wellness: For healthy teeth and gums, dental care should begin early in a child’s life

As health disparities go, the growing need for quality dental care often gets overlooked, but consider:

  • In North Carolina, about 40% of African American children have untreated dental cavities, versus 30% for their Caucasian counterparts.
  • Eighty-six of the state’s 100 counties report a shortage of dentists, and three counties have no dentists at all.
  • Children with untreated dental cavities are absent from school at a rate three times higher than students who have no untreated cavities.

If neglected, dental problems in children can become a “ticking time bomb,” sometimes resulting in tooth loss, chronic pain and poor academic performance, said Zachary Brian, D.M.D., program director at the N.C. Oral Health Collaborative, which advocates for greater statewide access to quality dental care.

“I think it’s an access issue,” he said, “but I also think it’s an economic issue.”

In other words, oral health outcomes are predictably worse among lower-income populations Brian said, most notably in African Americans, Latinos and families in rural areas.

Oral Health Day

On June 5, the Oral Health Collaborative will host its annual Oral Health Day at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, where the group will spotlight “oral health champions” across the state while seeking to raise awareness about the need for improved access to dental care.

“Dental decay is more prevalent than asthma…,” Brian said. ”That’s why early prevention plays such a vital piece in the long-term outcomes of oral health.”

Dr. Kia Williams, associate medical director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, said general oral care should begin in infancy.

“The primary care physician or pediatrician should be looking at the child’s mouth, even before they see a dentist,” she said.

Failure to care for a child’s teeth and gums can set the stage for oral health problems later in life, including problems with speech development.

Start Early With Oral Hygiene

Williams offers these tips for parents with young children:

  • Begin wiping down a child’s teeth and gums early in infancy. Use a soft cloth and water to remove food and bacteria that might later impact teeth.
  • Avoid feeding your child sugary foods and drinks throughout the day.
  • Avoid bottles that contain sweet drinks at bedtime.
  • Secondhand smoke can increase bacteria and lead to cavities in children.
  • Assess your child’s fluoride exposure. Families that use well water or highly filtered water may need fluoride treatments. (Most municipalities now add fluoride to drinking water.)
  • With older children, use protective mouth guards to avoid injury during play or physical activities.

Williams also encourages early dental visits.

“That builds comfort with seeing a dentist,” she said. “Don’t ignore that teeth and dental health are important to our overall health.”

ONLINE RESOURCES:

For parents seeking low-cost dental options, visit these websites:

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