February is the Time to Brush Up on Children’s Dental Health
By Dr. Denise Alston, MHS Director of Dental Services
As the director of dental services at Milton Hershey School (MHS), a free residential school for pre-K through 12th grade low-income students, it will come as no surprise that February being National Children’s Dental Health Month is important to me. It’s a time to raise awareness among parents and caregivers that making oral hygiene a priority at every age is essential.
Adopting brushing and flossing habits early in life has a direct connection to overall wellness. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, oral health and general health go hand-in-hand. In fact, research shows that chronic oral infections can lead to heart and lung disease, stroke, and even low-birth-weight premature births.
Tooth decay, is the most common chronic disease of childhood. Its impact is far greater for children from low-income backgrounds, like those we serve at MHS. The National Center for Health Statistics shares that in the United States, 25% of 2- to 5-year-old children from low socioeconomic and minority groups experience 80% of dental disease.
It is an unsettling reality that the children on the front lines of battling oral disease are often there due to lack of access to care, limited income, or lack of insurance. And, it has a ripple effect for them. Children suffering from tooth decay or oral pain may find it harder to concentrate in class, hurting their ability to learn—aside from the long-term consequences on their overall health. These challenges are further compounded by other factors experienced by children from low-income backgrounds, such as food insecurity.
Our dental staff at MHS includes dentists, an orthodontist, dental hygienists, dental and orthodontic assistants, and administrative staff. With the average income for a family of four among new students at $23,574, our dental staff sees new students who have never visited a dentist. Of new students enrolled during the 2020-21 school year, 39% did not receive routine preventive dental care prior to MHS, with 34% visiting the dentist infrequently and 5% never seeing a dentist before. As part of our commitment to whole child care, we provide our 2,000+ students with optimal dental services, including braces, at no cost to their families.
Students receive regular dental check-ups, x-rays, prophylaxis, fluoride treatment, and specialty dental health referrals, including oral surgery, endodontic, and periodontal and orthodontic care. Last school year, 13,143 dental visits occurred in our three clinics on campus.
In February, and throughout the year, our dental team works with students to educate them on oral hygiene. We stress these four simple tips in maintaining good oral health:
- Brush your teeth for two minutes, twice a day.
- Floss every single day. Brushing alone leaves 35% of your teeth untouched.
- Ensure you’re getting the proper nutrition and limit snacks. Maintain a healthy, balanced diet full of vitamins and minerals, like calcium. Limiting sugar intake is a great place to start and avoid constant snacking or grazing—this can help keep bacteria from forming cavities.
- See the dentist regularly. Getting to the dentist is important. Scheduling regular appointments every six months ensures any issues that arise are caught early.
Seeing a dentist can be challenging for families struggling financially or without insurance.
The American Dental Association’s Give Kids A Smile program provides opportunities for children without access to dental care to receive free preventive care and treatment from volunteer dentists. The Pennsylvania Dental Association and other states’ dental associations can also help with resources in your area. In addition, many dental schools offer free or discounted dental services for low-income individuals.
It’s about more than a beautiful smile. Healthy teeth and gums play a bigger role in our overall well-being. Educate yourself about the dental habits you should be helping reinforce with your child and the programs that can ensure you and your loved ones are regularly seeing a dentist.