British children’s dental health is improving. Over the past 30 years, huge advances have been made in the fight against cavities and gum disease in kids. However, decay and poor oral hygiene are still apparent in young children, with around 31 per cent of 5 year olds exhibiting obvious decay in their primary teeth.
Despite visits to the dentist being completely free for children, an astounding 40 per cent of children do not visit their dentist every year. This means minor problems in the mouth can go undetected for extended periods of time, leading to increased risk of cavities and symptoms of gum disease.
If you thought gum disease was something reserved for elderly relatives and heavy smokers, think again. Here’s what you need to know about gum disease in children.
What Is Gum Disease?
Gum disease is a chronic inflammation of the gum area, caused by ineffective or irregular cleaning habits. Plaque grows on the surface of the teeth, and if it is not regularly removed by good brushing, it will build up and start to irritate the gums. The symptoms range from mild to severe, starting with mild gingivitis and progressing up to advanced periodontitis.
In its early stages, gum disease is usually completely painless, so it can be hard to detect. Watch out for the following symptoms in your child, and if they develop, ask your dentist for further advice:
- Red, tender gums that bleed easily when brushed
- Persistent bad breath, even when teeth have just been cleaned
- Pockets of pus around the teeth or gums
The damage to the health of the gums is only the tip of the iceberg. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the soft tissue and bone underneath, causing loose teeth and eventually tooth loss. Advanced periodontitis has been linked with other medical problems, including heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease.
Do Children Get Gum Disease?
Cases of gum disease are unusual, but not unheard of, in children. The term ‘gum disease’ covers such a wide range of symptoms, from mildly bleeding gums to full blown periodontitis. The mildest form of gum disease is known as gingivitis, and is relatively common in both children and adults alike.
Children under 12 who either don’t brush regularly or who don’t use a good brushing technique can acquire gingivitis, which if left untreated could cause problems for them later in life. When children hit puberty, usually around age 12 – 14, increased levels of progesterone in their bodies can increase blood flow to the gums, making them more sensitive and increasing the risk of gum disease.
Other risk factors which could mean your child is more susceptible to developing gum disease include taking medications, with medicines for autism, diabetes and Down syndrome being particularly bad for gum health. A poor diet can serve to weaken tooth enamel, and wearing braces can make it difficult to get teeth effectively cleaned.
However, the number one risk factor for poor oral health is without doubt smoking. Smokers are susceptible to increased levels of plaque and tartar build up, and are more likely to show signs of advanced gum disease than their non-smoking peers. Cancer research states that 18 per cent of under 16’s have tried smoking, so do talk to your teen about their habits, and make sure they understand the consequences.
How can you help your child?
Gingivitis and other forms of gum disease are perfectly preventable and treatable. The key is to get your child into a better oral care routine, which you can do by:
- Supervising your child brushing, twice at day, for at least two minutes each time,
- Using a high fluoride toothpaste with at least 1350 – 1500ppm fluoride; there’s no need to buy ‘children’s toothpaste at all,
- Use a mirror to help your child see how to reach all the areas of their mouth,
- Get your child to try flossing, or using interdental brushes to clean between the teeth,
- Don’t let your child rinse with water or drink any water for a good while after brushing, as this will dilute the fluoride and make it less effective,
- Go to the dentist regularly, preferably twice a year, for a check-up and professional cleaning,
- Be a good role model; let your child see you taking care of your teeth and visiting the dentist regularly too.
There are additional treatments that your dentist can provide if your child is having trouble with their teeth. From the age of around 6 or 7, children can have their permanent back teeth fissure sealed, to help stop food being trapped there and causing decay. From age three, they may be offered a fluoride varnish twice a year. You can talk to your dentist about either of these treatments if you think they would help.
You may also like to read this blog post on How To Encourage Your Children To Look After Their Teeth And Gums