A Growing Number Of Preschoolers Have Extensive Tooth Decay
The most common disease among children is tooth decay.
And federal health officials say they’ve noticed a small, but significant increase of tooth decay among preschoolers.
Dentists say it’s not unusual to see young children with ten or more cavities. Treating that level of decay often requires a trip to the hospital.
Rady’s Children’s Hospital is the hub for pediatric surgery in San Diego County.
It’s also the place where young children with extensive tooth decay go for treatment.
Instead of going to a dentist’s office, they have to be treated in an operating room, under general anesthesia.
Inside one of the operating rooms, a three-year-old boy lies asleep on a gurney.
At his side dressed in full surgical garb sits pediatric dentist Susan Leary.
Dr. Leary said each one of the boy’s 20 primary teeth has a cavity. And that’s not all.
"He’s had some teeth extracted. We’ve done some crowns in the back of his mouth, we’ve done some crowns in the front on the bottom," Leary said. "We’ve tried to make it as aesthetic as possible. We’ve also done some space maintainers, because under each of these primary teeth is a permanent tooth growing. So we’re really concerned about the health of the permanent teeth."
Young children have trouble sitting still in a dentist’s chair for any length of time. That’s why this amount of work has to be done in an operating room.
Last year, nearly 2,000 children were treated for tooth decay in one of Rady’s operating rooms. 80 percent of them were six years old or younger.
Pediatric dentist Parvathi Pokala said our culture just isn’t conducive to good dental health.
"Our lifestyles are changing, we’re on the run, two working parent families, less time to spend with kids," Dr. Pokala said. "We’re eating a diet that’s much higher in sugar, and we’re snacking more frequently."
But if kids lose their baby teeth anyway, why does it matter if they have cavities?
Dr. Pokala pointed out young children depend on these teeth to chew and eat. If they fall out early, kids can have speech and self-esteem issues.
"And then, if you lose baby teeth early, the adult teeth don’t come in straight," she explained. "Often you lose space, you have crowding, things that really could have been avoided, by taking care of your baby teeth."
Tooth decay is preventable. Pokala stressed that prevention has to start early. She recommends kids visit a dentist by the time they’re one
Finding dental care that’s affordable can be challenging for many families. So can finding a dentist who’s willing to treat preschoolers.
But nearly all parents bring their kids to see a pediatrician.
That’s why pediatricians are crucial to spreading the word about dental health.
Pediatrician Jershonda Hartsfield works for Sharp Rees-Stehly in Chula Vista.
"As soon as those first teeth emerge, it’s important to start wiping down the teeth with a washcloth, and plain water," Dr. Hartsfield said. "And then start using a toothbrush as early as possible."
Hartsfield said she brings up oral health with parents when their babies are four to six months old.
"Most parents are very open," she said. "They appreciate the information, especially because most of us don’t think about dental care until there’s a problem or concern. And so basically addressing those issues for them early, trying to help with more preventative care, I think is well received by our patient population."
But giving people the right information doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do the right thing.
Take Amber Sedlow. At one point, she was thinking about becoming a dental hygienist.
Her three-year-old daughter Charlotte developed cavities in four of her baby teeth.
"Really, I feel bad, ‘cause I probably should have cared a little more," Sedlow lamented. "Just, more than, okay, brush your teeth twice a day."
After bringing her daughter to Rady Children's Hospital to get her cavities filled, Sedlow said she learned her lesson.
"No more apple juice," she promised. "And that’s gonna suck. She’s gonna have to drink water, but it is what it is. No more cavities, I don’t want to go through this again. I don’t – she’s okay with it, but not mom."
Federal health officials say 23 percent of kids ages 2 to 11 have untreated cavities.