Families of children with chronic conditions face many challenges. One that often takes a back seat to other pressing needs is the prevention of tooth decay. But although difficult, it still deserves caregivers’ attention because of the dental disease’s potential long-term impact on oral health.
Chronically ill children are often at higher risk for tooth decay, most commonly due to challenges in practicing effective oral hygiene. Some conditions create severe physical, mental or behavioral impairments in children’s ability to brush and floss: for example, they may have a heightened gag reflex to toothpaste in their mouth or they may not be able to physically perform these tasks on their own.
Some children may be taking medications that inhibit salivary flow as a side effect. Saliva is critical for disease prevention because it both neutralizes mouth acid (which can erode tooth enamel) and is a first line of defense against disease-causing bacteria. And a child’s diet, while designed to support treatment of their chronic condition, may conversely not be the best for supporting their dental health.
It’s best if caregivers and their dentists develop a strategy for decay prevention, which should include the following:
- Regular dental visits beginning at Age One. Besides monitoring dental health, dental visits also provide cleanings and other preventive measures like topical fluoride or sealants;
- Brushing and flossing support. Depending on a child’s physical and mental capacities, caregivers (or an older sibling) may need to model brushing and flossing, or perform the tasks for the child;
- Medication and diet changes. If medications are causing dry mouth, caregivers can speak to their physicians about possible alternatives; likewise, they should see if modifications can be made to their diet to better support dental health.
- Boosting salivary flow. It’s especially important with children who have dry mouth to drink more water or use aids (like xylitol gum or candies) to boost salivary flow.
Although it requires extra effort and time to give attention to a chronically ill child’s dental health, it’s well worth it. By working to prevent tooth decay early in life, these children will be more likely to enjoy good dental health in the future.
If you would like more information on dental care for children with special needs, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor article “Managing Tooth Decay in Children with Chronic Diseases.”
“No man is an island….” So wrote the poet John Donne four centuries ago. And while he meant the unity of humanity, the metaphor could equally apply to the interdependence of the various parts of the human body, including the mouth. According to recent scientific research, your mouth isn’t an “island” either.
Much of this research has focused on periodontal (gum) disease, an infection most often caused by bacterial plaque that triggers inflammation in the gum tissues. Although an important part of the body’s defenses, if the inflammation becomes chronic it can damage the gums and weaken their attachment to the teeth. Supporting bone may also deteriorate leading eventually to tooth loss.
Avoiding that outcome is good reason alone for treating and controlling gum disease. But there’s another reason—the possible effect the infection may have on the rest of the body, especially if you have one or more systemic health issues. It may be possible for bacteria to enter the bloodstream through the diseased gum tissues to affect other parts of the body or possibly make other inflammatory conditions worse.
One such condition is diabetes, a disease which affects nearly one person in ten. Normally the hormone insulin helps turn dietary sugars into energy for the body’s cells. But with diabetes either the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or the available insulin can’t metabolize sugar effectively. The disease can cause or complicate many other serious health situations.
There appears to be some links between diabetes and gum disease, including that they both fuel chronic inflammation. This may explain why diabetics with uncontrolled gum disease also often have poor blood sugar levels. Conversely, diabetics often have an exaggerated inflammatory response to gum disease bacteria compared to someone without diabetes.
The good news, though, is that bringing systemic diseases like diabetes under control may have a positive effect on the treatment of gum disease. It may also mean that properly treating gum disease could also help you manage not only diabetes, but also other conditions like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, or rheumatoid arthritis. Taking care of your teeth and gums may not only bring greater health to your mouth, but to the rest of your body as well.
If you would like more information on treating dental diseases like gum disease, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Good Oral Health Leads to Better Health Overall.”
It's no secret that many of Hollywood's brightest stars didn't start out with perfectly aligned, pearly-white teeth. And these days, plenty of celebs are willing to share their stories, showing how dentists help those megawatt smiles shine. In a recent interview with W magazine, Emma Stone, the stunning 28-year-old star of critically-acclaimed films like La La Land and Birdman, explained how orthodontic appliances helped her overcome problems caused by a harmful habit: persistent thumb sucking in childhood.
“I sucked my thumb until I was 11 years old,” she admitted, mischievously adding “It's still so soothing to do it.” Although it may have been comforting, the habit spelled trouble for her bite. “The roof of my mouth is so high-pitched that I had this huge overbite,” she said. “I got this gate when I was in second grade… I had braces, and then they put a gate.”
While her technical terminology isn't quite accurate, Stone is referring to a type of appliance worn in the mouth which dentists call a “tongue crib” or “thumb/finger appliance.” The purpose of these devices is to stop children from engaging in “parafunctional habits” — that is, behaviors like thumb sucking or tongue thrusting, which are unrelated to the normal function of the mouth and can cause serious bite problems. (Other parafunctional habits include nail biting, pencil chewing and teeth grinding.)
When kids develop the habit of regularly pushing the tongue against the front teeth (tongue thrusting) or sucking on an object placed inside the mouth (thumb sucking), the behavior can cause the front teeth to be pushed out of alignment. When the top teeth move forward, the condition is commonly referred to as an overbite. In some cases a more serious situation called an “open bite” may develop, which can be difficult to correct. Here, the top and bottom front teeth do not meet or overlap when the mouth is closed; instead, a vertical gap is left in between.
Orthodontic appliances are often recommended to stop harmful oral habits from causing further misalignment. Most appliances are designed with a block (or gate) that prevents the tongue or finger from pushing on the teeth; this is what the actress mentioned. Normally, when the appliance is worn for a period of months it can be expected to modify the child's behavior. Once the habit has been broken, other appliances like traditional braces or clear aligners can be used to bring the teeth into better alignment.
But in Stone's case, things didn't go so smoothly. “I'd take the gate down and suck my thumb underneath the mouth appliance,” she admitted, “because I was totally ignoring the rule to not suck your thumb while you're trying to straighten out your teeth.” That rule-breaking ended up costing the aspiring star lots of time: she spent a total of 7 years wearing braces.
Fortunately, things worked out for the best for Emma Stone: She now has a brilliant smile and a stellar career — plus a shiny new Golden Globe award! Does your child have a thumb sucking problem or another harmful oral habit? For more information about how to correct it, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “How Thumb Sucking Affects the Bite.”
Along with the gums, your teeth’s roots help stabilize them. Without them your teeth couldn’t handle the normal biting forces you encounter every day. That’s why a rare condition called root resorption must be treated promptly: this gradual breakdown and dissolving of root structure could eventually cause you to lose your tooth.
Resorption is normal in primary (“baby”) teeth giving way for permanent teeth or sometimes during orthodontic treatment. But the form of resorption we’re referring to in permanent teeth isn’t normal, and is highly destructive.
The condition begins in most cases outside the tooth and works its way in, usually at the gum line around the cervical or “neck-like” region of the tooth (hence the term external cervical resorption or ECR). ECR produces pink spots on the teeth in its early stages: these are spots of weakened enamel filled with pink-colored cells that cause the actual damage. The cells create cavity-like areas that can continue to enlarge.
We don’t fully understand what causes ECR, but there seems to be links with excessive force during orthodontics, tooth trauma (especially to the gum ligaments), tooth grinding habits or internal bleaching procedures. However, most people with these problems don’t develop ECR, so the exact mechanism remains a bit of a mystery.
The good news, though, is that we can treat ECR effectively, provided we discover it before it inflicts too much damage. That’s why regular dental visits are important, coupled with your own observation of anything out of the ordinary and immediate dental follow-up.
If the affected area is relatively small, we may be able to remove the cells causing the damage and repair the area with a tooth-colored filling. If it appears the pulp (the tooth’s innermost layer) is involved, we may need to perform a root canal treatment to remove infected tissue and fill the empty space with a special filling. You may also need other procedures to reduce the chances of gum recession around the affected tooth.
Proactive dental care is your best insurance against losing a tooth to root resorption. So keep an eye on your teeth and see your dentist regularly to keep your teeth and gums healthy.
If you would like more information on the signs and treatments for root resorption, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Root Resorption: An Unusual Phenomenon.”
The development of your child’s teeth, gums and jaw structure is an amazing process. But while it largely occurs on its own, we can’t take it for granted—we’ll need to do our part to ensure their mouth stays free from the effects of disease and injury.
That starts first and foremost with early oral hygiene practices. And we do mean early, even before teeth begin to erupt: a simple habit of wiping their gums after feeding with a clean, damp cloth helps reduce the growth of bacteria, the leading cause of dental disease.
Once teeth do appear, you can begin brushing them every day with just a smear of toothpaste. You can increase this to a pea-sized dose around age 2, as well as begin teaching them to brush and later floss for themselves.
Regular dental visits are the next pillar of preventive care. By and large it’s best to begin visits around their first birthday. Their primary teeth should be coming in at an even pace by then; and the earlier you begin visits the easier it will be for them to become used to them as a routine part of life.
Dental visits are essential for keeping bacterial plaque under control, as well as monitoring overall dental health. It’s also an opportunity to apply other preventive measures such as sealants that discourage tooth decay development on biting surfaces and topical fluoride for strengthening enamel.
Dental visits also provide frequent opportunities to detect bite problems or other situations as they’re emerging. Recognizing these early gives us a chance to intervene with less invasive treatments that could prevent or minimize more invasive treatments later.
You also don’t want to forget about the other major cause of dental problems—traumatic injuries. You can lessen this risk by limiting your child’s exposure to hard, sharp objects like furniture or some toys. And if they become involved with contact sports, it’s a good idea to invest in a custom mouthguard to protect their teeth and mouth from blunt force trauma.
As always, we’re here to support you and give you advice on other ways to keep your child’s dental development on track. Together we’ll give your child the best chance possible to enter adulthood with a healthy mouth.
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