Did you know that tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among children?

The link between oral health and overall health is often overlooked. People generally think of their teeth from a visual standpoint and do not consider the relationship between the health of their mouths and their systemic or general health.

Although the way our smiles look has an important role in self-confidence and speech, untreated tooth decay can also hinder one’s ability to learn, play, eat and sleep — especially for young children, according to a study published by the Pediatric Oral Health Research and Policy Center.

The good news is that most oral health problems are preventable.

Children’s dental health matters

Tooth decay (cavities) continues to be more common than asthma or hay fever, the California Department of Public Health reports.

Research has shown that, without proper oral hygiene and good nutrition, tooth decay can begin soon after babies get their first teeth. During a time of rapid development, young children with cavities are especially vulnerable to pain, but are unable to communicate it in a timely manner.

If left untreated, cavities in baby teeth can damage the underlying permanent teeth. They can also lead to ear and sinus infections, difficulty chewing and malnutrition, and poor sleep habits among children. They can have difficulty concentrating in school and are more likely to miss school due to dental pain.

These children are also at higher risk for developing cavities and gum disease throughout their life.

Common risk factors

Most chronic diseases have multiple risk factors, researchers C. Santhosh Kumar and Shweta Somasundara wrote in the International Journal of Contemporary Medical Research.

For adults, common risk factors for poor oral health include an unhealthy diet, smoking and tobacco use (including the use of e-cigarettes), lack of exercise, stress and poor oral hygiene. For example, chronic stress can lead to unwanted inflammation in the gums and increase the risk for periodontal disease (gum disease). Regular exercise can help to relieve stress and can decrease the risk of periodontal disease.

Although the research points toward sugar, an all-time favorite among children as well as adults, as the primary culprit for cavities, four foods containing added sugars react with the bacteria in the mouth and turn into acids. This acid can erode the enamel, or hard outer surface of the tooth. Saliva in the mouth can wash away or neutralize these acids, but may take up to 20 minutes after eating or drinking to work fully.

An unbalanced diet may be equally to blame. Frequent snacking and eating highly processed foods can limit the mouth’s ability to neutralize these acids, increasing the risk for cavities.

Prevention is Key

Although we cannot always prevent cavities or dental disease, having a regular dental routine can help. Here are some ways to keep your child’s mouth healthy:

• Have your child brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss daily to remove food debris caught between teeth. Ask your child’s dentist and primary care physician about fluoride varnish or supplements.

• According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, “Your child’s first dental visit should occur within six months after the baby’s first tooth appears, but no later than the child first birthday.” Make sure to schedule their check-ups every six months.

• Parents and caregivers can pass on cavity-causing bacteria to their babies when using their mouths to clean pacifiers or sharing eating utensils. Be sure to wash off harmful bacteria with soap and water instead.

• For the entire family, eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Drink water or milk instead of juices, sports drinks and sugary beverages. Choose non-acidic snacks like cheese sticks, avocados, watermelon or bananas. Vegetables like asparagus, broccoli and corn are also good for teeth.

The San Joaquin Treatment & Education for Everyone on Teeth & Health Collaborative — or SJ TEETH — a group of more than 40 local agencies and organizations, has come together to improve oral health within the county. For more information about dental health resources or to finding a dental provider, visit www.sjteeth.org.

Katelynn Peirce is a public health educator with San Joaquin County Public Health Services.The Healthy Lodi Initiative team is compiling local resources and helping to connect employers with tools to work toward improvement. For more information about the Healthy Lodi Initiative, visit www.healthylodi. com or call the Chamber at 209-367-7840.

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