Introducing a new lesson in our schools – good oral hygiene

These days, children's lives are busier than ever. School, sports, music lessons and other activities fill their day. With all that rushing around, most kids don't spend enough time taking care of their teeth. Poor dental hygiene can lead to tooth decay, today's most common chronic childhood disease. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease – five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever. More than 51 million school hours are lost each year due to dental-related illness.

Beth Truett is the president and CEO of Oral Health America. Her organization wants children to be healthier in school. She says parents and schools have a vested interest in working with dental care providers. The benefits of teaching children good oral hygiene habits will last a lifetime. Surveys show that children don't brush and floss as often as they should. Seven in 10 parents say they give their kids a brushing reminder daily. However, only 34 percent of those kids remember hearing their parents give these reminders.

Schools also come up short in telling children about good dental health. Just 39 percent of children said they learned about oral health in the past year. And as they get older, they hear less and less about oral health. For today's children, the result may be more than just tooth decay. It may be poor overall health.

Oral hygiene education starts at home

The good news is that childhood tooth decay can be prevented. But parents have to stay involved. The earlier you teach your children about good oral health, the better. Good dental hygiene habits early on reduce dental bills and improve overall health. Here are some tips to help your children improve their teeth.

  • Let your children choose their own toothbrushes. But make sure the toothbrushes are the proper size and have soft bristles. Children who pick their own toothbrushes will become more enthusiastic brushers. Replace your child's toothbrush when it's worn or the bristles are splayed. It's also a good idea to replace a toothbrush after an illness.
  • Find a flavor of children's toothpaste that your kids like. Children are sensitive to strong flavors and usually dislike adult toothpastes. Sure, there will be some trial and error as you look for the perfect flavor. But your child's dental health is worth it in the long run.
  • Use a two-minute tooth-brushing timer. Many are available in stores. These timers help make sure your kids are brushing for the recommended two minutes. And some kids think they're a lot of fun.
  • Pack a nutritious lunch and snack for school. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and cheeses are great choices. Cheese is especially good for teeth because it neutralizes acids that can cause tooth decay. Avoid fruit juices and sodas because they are very acidic. And acids in foods can erode your child's tooth enamel. Also avoid snacks that are sticky or chewy. These snacks cling to the teeth, allowing the bacteria in plaque to produce more acid. Plaque is a sticky colorless film made up of germs and sugar that forms on teeth every day.
  • Tell your children to go to the water fountain after lunch. Most kids can't brush their teeth after lunch. But a trip to the water fountain to rinse their mouth is helpful.
  • Try a floss pick. These are designed make flossing easier for kids. They also come in many fun flavors. Try to get your kids to floss twice a day. If that is difficult, make sure they floss before going to bed.
  • Set a good example. Schedule your regular dental checkups at the same time as your children's checkups.

Schools can help, too

According to Truett, schools are beginning to add good dental hygiene to their classes. "Schools can help by integrating mouth health into health and science classes." At all grade levels, schools need to explain oral health's importance to overall health, she said.

Schools are also offering healthier snacks. Fresh fruits are better for your child's oral health than salty or sugary snacks. Frequent sodas also contribute to tooth decay. Many schools are getting rid of vending machines that sell sodas and junk foods. Those same schools are replacing the soda machines with milk machines.

In Australia, several oral hygiene programs have been put into place. Schools screened students to measure their bad bacteria. Then the schools began a program of mouthwashes. The results have been exciting. Schools in which tooth decay was a big problem are now nearly free of it.

You can help your child by putting an apple in your child's backpack. It's the perfect, tooth-friendly snack. According to Best Health magazine, apples help cleanse your mouth. When you bite into an apple, it stimulates the production of saliva in your mouth. As you chew, the extra saliva lowers levels of the bacteria that cause tooth decay.

Other crunchy snacks, like carrots and cucumbers, also work to promote healthier teeth.

Protecting teeth from more than decay

Besides helping prevent tooth decay, more schools are taking steps to stop tooth loss. The National Federation of State High School Associations is involved. The federation made it a rule to use mouth guards in football, field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse, and wrestling. The American Dental Association provides more support for using mouth guards. Mouth guards prevent about 200,000 injuries each year in high school and college football.

Dr. Charles Marchetta is a dentist in Lancaster, Pa., who says a well-fitting mouth guard protects more than the teeth and gum tissue. A mouth guard also helps with concussions. Today, mouth guards can even be fitted for athletes who wear braces.

Reducing tooth decay requires the one/two punch of parents and schools working together. Don't forget to insist your children practice good oral hygiene at home and make wise, healthy eating choices at school.

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