Tooth decay is one of the easiest health problems to prevent, yet it remains the most common chronic condition among U.S. children and adolescents. The situation is worst for children from low-income families and those who are black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Alaska Natives.

2 young boys making facesIn the short-term, untreated tooth decay can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing, and learning. If it continues into adulthood, poor oral health can increase the risk of infection and other complications in people with chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Since February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, it’s an ideal time to call attention to the importance of children’s oral health and to the related racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities.

  • Mexican American and black children ages 2 to 4 years and 6 to 8 years have the highest rates of tooth decay.
  • 87% of American Indian and Alaska Native children 6 to 14 years of age and 91% of 15- to 19-year-olds in these ethnic groups have a history of tooth decay.
  • Children 5 to 19 years of age from low-income families are twice as likely to have cavities, compared with children from higher-income households.
  • Although preventive and treatment-based dental care is required for children covered by Medicaid, many do not have an annual dental exam.
  • Limited access to dental care is a significant barrier, especially in rural areas. In 2017, about 63 million Americans lived in “dental health shortage” areas.

What you can do: Start early

Tooth decay can develop as soon as your child’s first baby teeth come in, so it’s important to focus on oral health early on.

  • To prevent what’s known as “baby bottle tooth decay,” do not put your child to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, juice, or other liquid that contains sugar.
  • Help your child develop healthy eating habits. Limit juice and sugary drinks and sweet and sticky foods.
  • Take your child for regular dental checkups starting by age 1 or within six months after he or she gets her first tooth. Talk with your dentist about the best ways to care for your child’s teeth.
  • Start cleaning your child’s teeth as soon as they come in. As your child gets older, teach him or her to brush twice a day.
  • Protect your child’s teeth with fluoride and sealants.
  • If you think your child might have a cavity or other dental problem, go to the dentist as soon as possible.
  • Take care of your own oral health. You’ll set a good example and lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy habits for your child.