Black children have high rates of tooth decay, but experts say it’s easily preventable
Her daughter had bad migraines at a young age.
Erika Gist, senior health educator in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, couldn’t understand why her daughter was in pain. When she took her to the doctor, the only conclusion they found was nothing – she was healthy.
Gist then took her to the dentist where they discovered cavities. Once they were addressed and filled, the pain eased. Through personal experience, Gist has seen how teeth impact our overall health, especially for children.
“If we start putting oral health at the forefront, we can solve some of the issues that we might not even connect,” Gist said. “Initially, I wouldn’t have linked the headaches to my daughter’s oral health, but when it was treated, the headaches started to go away.”
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health 2020 Smile Survey, nearly half of children have had dental cavities. Health experts strive to educate parents about the importance of taking care of their children’s oral health from the second they are born to prevent tooth decay and other health problems.
Although the rate of tooth decay in children has declined by 17 percentage points since the last iteration of the survey in 2005, disparities between socioeconomic and racial lines persist.
The same study found that 63% of Latinx students, 50% of black students and 48% of Asian kindergarten and third graders had dental decay, compared to just 32% of white students in LA County. The same trend is reflected in the percentage of students who have untreated tooth decay. Twenty-three percent of black students, 21% of Latinx students, and 20% of Asian students had untreated tooth decay, compared to 14% of white students.
“At least at the Los Angeles County level, what we’ve seen from 2020 is that children of color still experience inequities when it comes to their oral health, especially Latinx and Black children. “, Gabriella Barbosa, executive director of policy at the Children’s Partnership said.
The Children’s Partnership is a California-based children’s rights organization dedicated to improving the lives of underserved children, including through dental and health care. Barbosa said the organization noticed there was a striking finding that tooth decay was not only most prevalent across all race lines, but also among low-income families. To solve the problem, part of the organization’s job is to provide care for children, especially in cases like dental care where it can be difficult to find them.
“This means not leaving the full responsibility of children and their families to seek care, especially if they live in areas where care may not be accessible or not be close to their homes and neighborhoods. “she said.
One option for low-income families is to receive dental care through Medi-Cal. Barbosa said that even with Medi-Cal coverage making access to care affordable, it can be difficult to find dental providers who accept it. Black children enrolled in Medi-Cal had the lowest dental care rates in 2020, according to data from the California Department of Health Care Services.
Barbosa said the Children’s Partnership aims to fill the gaps when it becomes difficult for families to find care. Some examples of providing care to the community are providing dental care to community spaces and learning centers. In one example, they piloted a mobile dental health center through a bus that visited schools in the Inland Empire to provide care while children were in school, making it more accessible to students.
In addition to making dental care accessible, Dr Maritza Cabezas, dental director of the oral health program in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said parents should also be educated on how to care of their children’s teeth from an early age.
“Part of the reason for these extremely high rates of tooth decay is that parents sometimes don’t understand the importance of preventing dental disease at an early age,” she said. “There is this misconception that tooth decay in young children is not important because baby teeth will fall out anyway.”
This is not the case. Dr Cabezas said a predictor of caries in adults is strong decay of baby teeth. The health of their teeth at a young age can determine their future oral health. Practices for maintaining children’s dental health include:
● Maintain good dental hygiene during pregnancy
● Clean the baby’s gums with a washcloth after feeding to clean the bacteria left by the milk.
● Visit to the dentist every six months after the baby’s first tooth appears.
● Cut down on sugary drinks.
● Brushing twice a day with a soft toothbrush once the teeth start to grow.
● Use dental floss at least once a day.
Dr Cabezas said it’s best to do the little everyday things to limit the possibility of bigger health issues in the future.
“If you take good care of your car, change its oil, and tune it frequently, you will prevent something from breaking down in the future and being much more expensive to repair,” he said. she declared. “And people need to understand that the same idea applies to your child’s teeth.”
It can also be a collaborative effort. Gist said she involves her children in small decisions about their health as they get older so they can take an interest in them. For example, let them determine which toothpaste they prefer and let them make that decision.
“I try to make it more fun for them and involve them more in brushing their teeth,” Gist said.
Poor dental hygiene can also lead to problems in a child’s adulthood if ignored. Dr Cabezas said these complications include poor diet, heart disease, diabetes and pregnancy complications. It can even cause problems at school. Barbosa said cavities can present problems inside the classroom because it can affect attendance and make it difficult for students to concentrate.
For Dr. Brent Tucker, dental care should not be ignored until problems arise.
” I think it is [rate of decay in children] completely linked to access to care or knowing that the child needs preventive care, ”he said. “I think as adults we only start going if there is a problem.”
He pointed out that even outside of dental care, people tend to seek care only for problems and less often for preventive care or check-ups. He said it’s important to go to the dentist for a cleaning the same way someone would take their child to the pediatrician for a check-up or vaccinations.
Even if a parent is slow to understand all the important dental health practices of their children, this is not the end. The gist said that there is a common misconception that teeth are meant to fall out and that we are destined to adorn dentures in old age. However, this is not always the case.
“One thing about speaking is that for the most part it’s reversible,” she said. “If you have inflamed gums, you can definitely work on healthy gums. This could definitely be worked in which you can have your teeth in for a very long time.
Throughout the pandemic, Gist was able to monitor his children’s brushing habits throughout the day as they were all in quarantine. She would notice when someone brushed and didn’t brush for a good two minutes. She even encouraged her children to brush their teeth after lunch because they had the opportunity to consider that they were still at home. She said it was important to her that her children adopt these habits so that it is something that continues into adulthood.
Dr Tucker sees dental health misinformation in his office daily and is more than willing to help parents and children adopt common practices that will help them get their dental health back on track. He said even the smallest changes can make a big difference in hopefully making every exam a cinch for him and his patients.
“We are one of the only professions that are actively trying to go out of business,” said Dr. Tucker. “Nothing would make me happier than if I had a full day and literally every patient I saw didn’t have cavities.”