They don’t believe in the tooth fairy anymore and they hung up that SpongeBob toothbrush long ago. But for many teens, new habits and new attitudes may be making them more prone than ever to dental decay.
“We see teens all too often who went through childhood cavity-free; then, their diet changes and they have many cavities,” says Dr. Joel Berg, director of dentistry for Seattle Children’s Hospital and the father of a 19- and 21-year-old. Those changes in diet, combined with a lack of proper flossing and brushing (yes, your child!) are the chief culprits in teen cavities. “No amount of fluoride can stop it,” Berg says about the onslaught of teens’ tooth-damaging eating. “Teens snack, which exposes their teeth more frequently to sugars.”
The coffee connection
Teens also love to hang out after school at coffeehouses, Berg says, sucking down beverages that are loaded with sugar — and consumed very slowly. That creates a higher risk of cavities for teens. Berg says parents should coach teens: If they want to stop by Starbucks with friends, consider a drink with less sugar — such as a cappuccino — and a healthy snack, such as a fruit and cheese tray or nuts.
Fruit smoothies are also a concern, according to Dr. Leslie Grant, the dental compliance officer for the Maryland State Board of Dental Examiners and the mother of a 12-year-old son. “Because smoothies are a fruit and dairy beverage, there is a misconception that any amount is OK,” Grant says. “This is not correct. Frequent drinking of fruit smoothies exposes the enamel in teeth to acid. This may cause tooth sensitivity and erosion, which can lead to tooth decay.
“The key is moderation,” Grant says, “which typically is a difficult concept for teenagers to adopt. Encourage your teen to limit consumption to once a week and when possible, try to brush before or immediately afterwards.”
Berg says there’s a gender difference in teen teeth troubles. Teen girls tend to see an increased number of cavities due to changes in diet, while teen boys usually experience increased cavities because of poor dental habits. For that, Berg recommends a battery-powered toothbrush, which “makes it easier to do a good job. It is like an exercise machine; for some teens, it may provide a higher motivation to use it.”
University of Washington professor and dentist Dr. Peter Milgrom says that parents should help teens make realistic choices to protect their teeth. “If it is hard to remember to brush, maybe the teen would be willing to go to the dentist for fluoride treatments more often,” Milgrom says. “If they don’t always remember to brush, maybe a fluoride mouth rinse with breath freshener would be acceptable.” Sugarless gum or gum with xylitol also can help by stimulating saliva and protecting the teeth, Milgrom says.
A piercing problem
As if you needed another reason to object, Grant says oral piercing is another potential hazard to teen dental health. “There are many negative aspects associated with oral piercing, including pain, swelling, bleeding, nerve damage, allergic reactions, chipped teeth, tooth loss and gum recession,” says Grant. “Teens have to be made aware that all piercings require maintenance and regular cleaning. If they are not maintaining good oral hygiene, then the possibility of future problems may become a reality.
“My advice is to strongly discourage oral piercing for your teenager,” says Grant.
If you’re sending your teen off to college next fall, be sure to schedule a dental check-up first, advises Berg, and make sure he or she knows who to call at college in a dental emergency.
“I would like to remind parents that nearly all dental disease is preventable,” says Berg. “Dental health is a marker of total health. If a boy is not brushing his teeth, he is probably not taking care of his overall health.”
Kathleen F. Miller is a mother and a frequent contributor to ParentMap.