By Maritza Cabezas, D.D.S., M.P.H.
Dental Director, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Oral Health Program
April 11, 2021
Over the past two years, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Oral Health Program determined the prevalence of oral disease among kids by screening over 10,000 children enrolled in Los Angeles County public schools. One of the major findings from this study is that by the time they enter kindergarten, nearly half of children in Los Angeles County will have experienced cavities (tooth decay) and by the time they enter third grade, more than 60 percent will have had dental disease.
We also found that cavities are much more common in children from socioeconomically disadvantaged households, especially among children from Asian, Black/African American, and Latinx backgrounds. Children from families with low incomes are almost twice as likely to have treated and/or untreated cavities compared to those from families with higher incomes. More than 60 percent of Latinx children and more than 50 percent of Black/African American children have had a cavity in their lifetime, compared to only 32 percent of non-Latinx white children.
When not treated by a dentist, cavities can be painful and only get worse, reducing a child’s wellbeing and academic development. Children experiencing toothaches may not be able to concentrate in class or while taking an exam. They may also have a hard time preparing for school and doing homework.
Untreated cavities can lead to health problems including increasing pain, poor nutrition, and infections which if left untreated could become life threatening. Poor oral hygiene is also associated with health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and pregnancy complications later in life.
Not only is untreated dental disease bad for kids’ health and wellbeing, but the delay is also likely to require more costly care. Children covered by the Medi-Cal Dental Program who went to the dentist by age one had 40% lower dental costs over their next four years compared to children that did not see a dentist by age one.
One reason for these extremely high rates of cavities is that many parents don’t understand the importance of preventing dental disease from an early age. There is a misconception that cavities in young children are not important because “baby teeth will fall out anyway.” Parents think there is no need for dental hygiene at an early age, but studies show that the best predictor of cavities in permanent (adult) teeth is the presence of cavities in baby teeth. What this tells us is that so they can have good oral health as an adult, we need to start taking care of our baby’s mouth as soon as they are born.
That is why Public Health has launched an awareness campaign to encourage parents to take three simple actions to safeguard their baby’s dental health from day one:
- Even before the first tooth comes in, clean your baby’s gums with a washcloth after feeding to remove leftover milk which acts as a feeding ground for bad bacteria;
- Brush your baby’s teeth twice a day with a soft toothbrush and just a smear of fluoride toothpaste, the size of a grain of rice; and,
- Start visiting the dentist every 6 months by the time your baby turns one or when their first tooth appears.
Parents may be concerned about taking their child to the dentist right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, but visiting the dentist is safe. Dentists wear personal protective equipment and dental offices are required by the Dental Board of California and the Cal/OSHA to meet safety measures to keep people safe. If a parent of caregiver is feeling anxious about making an appointment, they should call the dental office in advance to learn about what procedures they have implemented.
Dental health is essential to overall health. Preventive habits at home and access to a dentist put kids on track for a lifetime of healthy smiles. We encourage parents to visit our website at ChooseHealthLA.com/Teeth or by calling 211 to find a low or no cost dentist. The website features a wide variety of tips and advice for parents of children of all ages, as well as for women who are pregnant. We need to start caring for their baby teeth from day one.
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