Healthy Teeth Equal Better School Performance

All parents quickly learn one thing about their children: Sickness is inevitable. And sick children miss school. Although asthma is sometimes cited as the most common childhood disease, the actual leader, according to the National Institutes of Health, is dental caries. More than four in 10 school-aged children suffer from caries; that means your child is more than five times more likely to have caries than to develop asthma.

Early tooth loss caused by dental decay can lead to a wide range of problems:

  • failure to thrive
  • impaired speech development
  • absence from and inability to concentrate in school
  • reduced self-esteem

Dental problems in children have been linked to shyness, unhappiness, feelings of worthlessness and reduced friendliness. These effects grow as children get older; unhappiness and feeling of worthlessness peak for adolescents between 15 and 17 years.

Studies have suggested that children miss more than 1.7 million school days annually due to dental issues. And children who miss school don’t do as well socially or academically as do children with regular school attendance. Children with dental problems are more likely to have problems at school and less likely to do all their homework. Children suffering from a toothache cannot concentrate on their schoolwork and do not score as well on tests as do healthy children. Their school performance suffers, which tends to have a negative impact on their self-esteem.

But not all school absences have equal impact on a child’s progress. In a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina found that “school absences caused by dental pain or infection were significantly related to parents’ reports of poor school performance, whereas school absences for routine dental care were not. These findings underscore the likelihood that school absence is not a stand-alone factor in considerations of school performance, providing further evidence that children experiencing pain or infection may have a diminished educational experience because their discomfort may inhibit their ability to perform well while at school.”

Good oral hygiene and regular visits to the dentist, even if those visits have to be scheduled during school hours, help keep your child’s teeth healthy. And children with good oral health are more likely to have better outcomes at school.

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Chewing Gum Can Help Your Teeth

Your parents may have told you that chewing gum would rot your teeth, but recent research has shown that chewing certain types of gum can actually reduce cavities. And if you are an expectant mother or the mother of a newborn, chewing gum may reduce your child’s cavities.

Streptococci bacteria (that’s the same family of bacteria that causes strep throat) feed on sugars to create acids. Those acids attack tooth enamel—and that leads to tooth decay. While saliva neutralizes the bacteria, too much sugar creates an avalanche that overwhelms saliva’s effect. Chewing gum increases saliva production—that’s good. But the sugar in chewing gum creates more acid than what increased saliva can wash away—that’s bad. And that’s why your parents told you that chewing gum causes cavities.

How do bacteria get into infants’ mouths? Primarily from their mothers. In fact, transmission of streptococci from mother to child begins even before birth. Now, researchers have discovered a way to counteract the streptococci problem, and it involves chewing gum.

Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar (much of it comes from corn cobs). Unlike regular table sugar, however, xylitol does not promote the growth of acid on the teeth. Streptococci can’t process xylitol. In fact, xylitol helps prevent acid from sticking to teeth. This means that the increased saliva generated from chewing xylitol-sweetened gum washes away most of the streptococci from the mouth—up to 90%, according to scientific studies.

Fewer streptococci in mom’s mouth means less tooth decay in baby’s mouth. Researchers had expectant mothers chew xylitol-sweetened gum during the last three months of their pregnancies. Then the researchers tested the children until age two for the presence of bacteria in their mouths. The children of mothers who chewed xylitol-sweetened gum while pregnant were less likely to have oral streptococci at every test period.

Better yet, chewing xylitol gum may actually strengthen teeth. The combination of more saliva and less acid leads to a process called remineralization that restores tooth enamel and can actually reverse the lesions that lead to cavities.

So your parents were only partially right. Chewing gum sweetened with sugar can, indeed, rot your children’s teeth. But xylitol-sweetened gum can help maintain and strengthen your children’s teeth—even before they’re born.

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Safety First: Preventing Dental Injuries

Dental injuries and emergencies can happen to children anytime. Research suggests that when children start to walk and run—generally between the ages of 1 and 3—they are at high risk. Toddlers are often uncoordinated, which places them at major risk for falls and bumps.

Another high-risk time is between the ages of 8 and 11 years, when children are more active and less cautious. Injuries to children’s teeth can be stressful to them and their parents. Dental injuries tend to occur from

  • sports accidents
  • falls inside or outside the home
  • road traffic accidents
  • fights

Playing It Safe

Fortunately, you and your children can use some strategies to help prevent most dental injuries. Knowing what to do is also important in the event of a dental injury, so talk to us about your child’s activities and what to do should an injury occur. You can help to prevent dental injuries by advising your child to

  • avoid walking or running with an object in his or her mouth
  • never suck or chew on hard, sharp or pointed objects
  • wear a mouth guard for sports activities that could cause injury
  • always wear a seat belt in the car

Buying and Wearing a Mouth Guard

Mouth guards are especially important in sports such as rugby, hockey and boxing. Usually made of rubber, they provide a protective cover that shields teeth and gums. Although you can purchase them in sports stores, it’s best if we make a custom-fit one for your child. This ensures that your child can talk and breathe normally while wearing it. As new teeth develop and their mouths change, children need to have their mouth guards replaced.

Dental injuries are common but largely preventable. Follow the tips mentioned to prevent the likelihood of trauma. Make sure you also talk to us about risk factors for injury and how you can best prevent problems with age-appropriate strategies.

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Sore Mouth Can Distress a Person

A sore or inflamed mouth can occur for many reasons, including canker or cold sores, mild burns, wearing braces, or irritation from biting the tongue or teeth; but no matter what causes mouth soreness and inflammation (also called stomatitis), the effects are the same: Discomfort that can affect your child’s ability to eat, speak and even sleep.

Canker Sores

Pale, often yellowish, sores that usually have an outer red ring, these sores occur most commonly on the cheeks, tongue or inside of the lip and may occur in clusters. Most sores last five to 10 days and are not associated with fever.

Although the cause of these sores is unknown, several factors may be related to their development, including stress, bacteria or viruses. They may also be triggered by a cold or flu, by certain foods such as chocolate or citrus fruits, by biting the inside of the cheek, or by chewing sharp or abrasive foods. Canker sores aren’t contagious, and they occur in about one-fifth of the U.S. population.

Cold Sores

Also commonly called fever blisters, these fluid-filled sores usually occur around the lips. In many cases, the area where the sore appears may tingle, burn or feel tender before the sore appears and form a crusty scab in their later stages. These sores are usually associated with a cold or flu and typically disappear within 10 days. There is no cure for cold sores, but applying ice may help reduce discomfort, and your child’s pediatrician might prescribe an antiviral medication to reduce symptoms.

Caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1, cold sores are contagious. Infection with the virus sometimes occurs during childhood or adolescence, and the virus remains in the body, becoming reactivated by stress, fever, hormonal changes or trauma.

Mouth Irritation

Many factors can cause irritation, including wearing braces or retainers, burns from hot foods or drinks, broken teeth or hypersensitivity to specific foods or medications.


Most mouth sores resolve within two weeks; sores that persist beyond that time should be evaluated by a doctor. In the meantime, to minimize your child’s discomfort

  • have them avoid hot, spicy, salty and citrus-based foods while the sore is active
  • rinse with salt water, for canker sores
  • use over-the-counter children’s pain medications and ice

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Snack Attack on Your Child’s Teeth

Today’s children are exposed to more food choices than ever before. A wide variety of edibles, from fruits and vegetables to sugary and salty snacks to fast food, is available. And children love to snack. It’s common knowledge that what children eat can have a major impact on their health and well-being. But even the decision of when to eat can have a major impact on a child’s dental health.

Everyone knows that sugary foods and drinks can cause tooth decay. The sugar in that chocolate-frosted, cream-filled cupcake provides food for bacteria that grow in the mouth. These bacteria produce acid that eats away at tooth enamel. The result: cavities. And the sodas your child is chugging down? More sugar.

Even healthy foods can be a source of sugar. Fruit and fruit juices are loaded with natural sugars. Almost half the calories in carrots come from sugars. The starches in foods like bread, potatoes and pretzels convert to sugars, too. In fact, almost all food and drink we consume contains some type of sugar.

Does that mean that your child needs to stop eating and drinking to protect his or her teeth? Of course not. Interestingly, the time when your child eats can make a big difference. The snacks and drinks your child consumes between meals contribute more to tooth decay than your child’s mealtime foods. Studies have shown that the mouth needs 20 minutes to neutralize after each exposure to sugar. That means the frequent consumption of sugar, even in small doses, has a harmful effect on teeth.

When you child sits down to a meal, he or she produces more saliva, which helps to neutralize acid production and rinse food particles from the mouth. If you allow your child to have sugary drinks or snacks, limit them to mealtime, when your child’s natural mouth cleanser is most effective. Between meals, encourage your child to drink water rather than soft drinks or juice. Closely monitor snacks. If your child is old enough to chew gum, offer sugarless chewing gum, especially gum flavored with xylitol, which increases saliva flow and stimulates cleaning.

And, of course, make sure your child brushes and flosses regularly. Good dental hygiene, good eating habits and regular dental visits all help keep your child’s smile healthy and bright.

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Sealing Out Tooth Decay

The chewing surfaces on the back teeth—the premolars and molars—include numerous depressions and grooves. These indentations, called fissures and pits, help us grind our food into particles small enough to swallow.

Unfortunately, toothbrush bristles cannot get into the smaller fissures and pits to remove tiny bits of food and plaque bacteria that accumulate on the back teeth. This means that even regular brushing and flossing may not be enough to keep those fissures and pits clean.

The result? These bacteria turn the sugars and starches we eat and drink into acids that attack tooth enamel. And that attack can result in tooth decay.

One solution to the problem of cleaning the fissures and pits is the use of dental sealants. Made from a plastic material, sealants are placed over the chewing surfaces of premolars and molars. They protect the tooth surfaces that are the hardest to keep clean and thus are the most susceptible to decay from food and bacteria.

Applying dental sealants is quick and easy. After we perform a thorough cleaning of the tooth, the sealant is placed over the chewing surface of the tooth, where it bonds to the enamel. The sealant typically lasts for several years, protecting the tooth surface from decay. If the sealant shows any signs of deterioration, we simply reapply it.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported overwhelming evidence that dental sealants reduce tooth decay in children and adolescents. Ronald L. Tankersley, former president of the American Dental Association, noted, “The two most prevalent dental diseases, dental caries and periodontal disease, are both preventable. The proper use of dental sealants at an early age is an effective tool for preventing dental caries in the most susceptible patients.”

Sealants alone, though, can’t replace good dental care. Twice-daily brushing and flossing, along with regular visits to the dentist, are still the mainstays of everyone’s effort to keep teeth healthy. But sealants add another weapon in the fight against tooth decay.

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