Make sure kids get back-to-school dental checkups

Untreated dental issues can affect school performance

Summer break is almost over, and parents are registering for school, buying supplies and clothes and taking kids for vaccines and eye exams. But many tend to overlook oral health, says a University of Alabama at Birmingham pediatric dentist.

“A dental check-up is important — and not just so kids’ teeth are pretty and white,” says Stephen C. Mitchell, D.M.D., associate professor in the UAB School of Dentistry. “On average, 22 percent of children have cavities that go untreated, and more than 1 million school days are lost each year because of tooth pain.

“Imagine trying to sit and focus on an algebra problem while you’ve got a toothache. You know you can’t concentrate on anything but the throbbing,” Mitchell says.

During a routine cleaning, dentists can check for cavities and any other signs of sickness or poor health in a child’s teeth or gums. Don’t let fears about out-of-pocket costs make you skip the dentist, Mitchell says; that could make things worse.

“On average, 22 percent of children have cavities that go untreated, and more than 1 million school days are lost each year because of tooth pain."

“Parents should schedule regular visits to the dentist,” he says. It’s better to pay a little bit for prevention instead of a great deal for repair. “Look for cost-effective options,” he adds. “Dental schools often offer services much less expensively than a private setting.”

A few things parents can do to improve their child’s oral health:

  • Help your child clean their teeth well at least twice a day.

  • Regulate how many liquid sugars they drink — including juice and/or colas. Make those a special treat.

  • Encourage kids to drink white milk or water during lunch. This helps the teeth and the body.

What should parents look for daily?

  • What is your child’s tooth color? Poorly brushed teeth will turn yellow.

  • Do their gums bleed when they’re brushing? They’re not brushing well.

  • See any holes or spots? A dark brown or yellow hole could be a cavity, and it needs to be examined.

Finally, how often should a parent take a child to the dentist? “A child should see the dentist by their first birthday because we want to see them before a problem begins,” Mitchell says. “We used to say everyone needs to visit every six months, but talk with your dentist. Kids who never have a problem may only need to go once a year. Kids with dental issues may need to be seen every three months. That’s a decision you need to make with your dentist.”

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