The No. 1 Threat to Kids' Health

Preventing the most common chronic childhood disease takes less than 5 minutes a day—and it could be something you regularly remind your kids to do already.

This pervasive threat to children’s health is tooth decay, and the numbers are rising—even though cavities are largely preventable. In fact, a shocking new survey just released by the Ad Council shows that only 44 percent of American kids brush their teeth two or more times per day, leaving the majority of kids at high risk for costly and painful dental problems.

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No time?

The survey finds that many children spend more than eight hours a day on unnecessary activities, like playing video games (1.9 hours), texting (2.2 hours), watching television (2.6 hours a day), playing games around the house or playing on their computers. Parents surveyed also reported that their kids spend more than two hours a day on activities that are “silly or unnecessary.” A tiny fraction of this time could be spent on brushing and flossing.

How bad is the problem?

“Dental decay is the most common chronic childhood disease with more than 16 million kids suffering from untreated tooth decay in the U.S.,” Dental Trade Alliance Foundation CEO Gary Price said in a press release. He further added that kids miss more than 50 million hours of school (and parents lose 25 million hours of work) each week.

Decay can lead to complications including tooth loss, severe pain, chewing problems and tooth abscesses. Bacteria from gum disease can also enter the bloodstream, sometimes causing infections in other parts of the body, such as the heart. In rare cases, untreated cavities can actually be fatal in kids. Twelve-year-old Deamonte Driver died in 2007 from an infection that began with an abscessed tooth, but then spread to his brain.

Although the majority of parents surveyed realized that kids who don’t take care of their teeth properly are at greater risk of oral pain, fewer understood the link between poor oral health and overall health. But tooth decay can be associated with other diseases such as diabetes, obesity and even heart disease. In addition, tooth loss before the age of 35 may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

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Some Children More at Risk

Low-income children suffer from decayed teeth almost two times as often as those with higher income, which may have to do with how quickly they receive treatment for tooth decay, and how often they brush their teeth. Only 40 percent of lower-income parents report that their kids brush their teeth twice or more daily, compared to 51 percent of parents with higher income. And about half of all children—and two-thirds of adolescents from lower income families—suffer from tooth decay.

But cavities have been on the rise in all income groups, as I’ve reported previously. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that tooth decay affects over one-fourth of two to five year-old children, and half of kids age 12 to 15.

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Prevention is Simple

Only 40 percent of parents surveyed—and 62 percent of parents with kids age 5 or younger—said they regularly help their kids brush their teeth or check to make sure they’ve done a good job. But the simplest way to prevent oral disease is by making sure kids brush their teeth twice a day—and since most kids can’t handle the toothbrush by themselves until they are 4 or 5, parents need to help them until they develop the skill necessary to brush by themselves. After that time, supervising your children to make sure they’re doing a thorough job is advised.

The CDC recommends kids begin using toothpaste with fluoride when they’re two years old—but just a pea-sized dab is fine. (If kids under six swallow too much fluoride, they may develop white spots in their teeth.)

In addition to brushing, flossing daily helps remove food particles that toothbrushes can’t get to. Limiting sugary snacks is also important, especially in small children. Sending your baby to bed with a bottle is a mistake, as the sugar from the liquid can pool around their teeth, attracting bacteria which produces acids that damage teeth and lead to tooth decay.

If your kids are under the age of two, you can actually help prevent tooth decay before they even have teeth. Dentists recommend removing cavity-causing bacteria by wiping your baby’s gum with a damp washcloth.

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that children see a dentist when they get their first tooth, or on their first birthday—whichever comes first.

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