Mouth guards are key for sporty kids to keep their pearly whites

For kids with permanent teeth, this simple device protects against sports-related dental injuries.

For sports fans, the crunch of helmets as players tangle for a loose football, the swoosh of the net as an outside jumper is made and the crack of the bat as a guaranteed double sails into right center field are all beautiful sounds. For dentists, they’re reminders that young athletes are just one misstep away from a mouth injury.

teeth_web“Kids playing all sports, not just contact sports like football, are at risk for a dental injury,” says Stephen Mitchell, D.M.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Pediatric Dentistry. “Though non-contact sports, basketball and baseball are the two biggest sports from which we see mouth injuries.”

According to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General, craniofacial injuries sustained during sporting activities are a major source of nonfatal injury and disability in children and adults, accounting for up to one-third of all sports injuries. The National Youth Sports Safety Foundation estimates that more than 3 million teeth will be knocked out in youth sporting activities this year.

Parents should understand the risks of sports-related dental injuries and have children use additional protective gear as appropriate, Mitchell says. The number-one piece of necessary protection equipment: a mouth guard.

Mitchell says children who have any permanent teeth should wear a mouth guard when playing sports. If a child has a full set of permanent teeth, a custom-made guard will provide protection but be small enough to make it easy to communicate with teammates. If some baby teeth remain, however, a custom guard is a waste of money, says Mitchell. Parents will be better off going to their local sporting goods store and buying the type of guard that can be boiled and molded to their child’s mouth.

If children don’t yet have any permanent teeth, there isn’t a dental-related advantage to using a guard, Mitchell adds — and most kids that young won’t tolerate them anyway.

So what should you do if, despite your best preventive efforts, your child still hurts their teeth?

If a tooth is broken or cracked, see a dentist within 24 hours, Mitchell says. If the tooth has been displaced or knocked out, take the child immediately to the emergency room and try to preserve the tooth, Mitchell advises. Most children’s hospitals have pediatric dentists on staff.

“A tooth that has been knocked out needs to be back in the mouth within 30 minutes for the best chance of long-term survival,” Mitchell says. He offers these tips for preserving the tooth, which can even help past the ideal 30-minute window:

  • Avoid touching the root, which can be damaged easily.
  • If the tooth is dirty, hold it by the upper part and rinse it off with milk until most of the dirt is washed away. If you don't have milk, don’t clean it. Wiping it off may cause more damage.
  • If it is a permanent tooth, try to gently put the tooth back in its socket for the best chance of preservation. If it’s a baby tooth, don’t put it back in. It can cause more pain and even infection.
  • If you can’t get it back in the socket, put it in a solution called Save-a-Tooth, found at drugstores. Mitchell suggests parents keep this solution on hand if their kids play sports.
  • If you don’t have Save-a-Tooth, put the tooth in a cup of milk and head for the dentist or emergency room.

“We tell people to put the tooth in milk because the cells around the root are still alive after it is knocked out and milk can provide nutrients to the cells to help keep them alive,” Mitchell explains. “Do not put the tooth in water. It can cause the cells to burst and makes saving the tooth much less likely.”

Mitchell says the website Dental Trauma Guide ( has plenty of helpful information, including photos of what different dental injuries look like and guidance on what to do for each type.

No matter the injury, Mitchell says caring properly for the mouth afterward is the key to successful healing.

“Following an injury a child’s mouth will be sore and they will want to do everything they can to make it not hurt. But continuing to brush their teeth and practice good oral hygiene is extremely important,” he says. “It is the same as keeping any other wound clean; the cleaner the mouth is kept, the better it heals.”