Dental hygiene refers to the practice of keeping the mouth, teeth, and gums clean and healthy to prevent disease. Dental hygiene and oral health are often taken for granted but are essential parts of our everyday lives.
Tooth decay (cavities) is a common problem for people of all ages. For children, untreated cavities can cause pain, absence from school, difficulty concentrating on learning, and poor appearance, all problems that greatly affect quality of life and ability to succeed. Children from lower income families often do not receive timely treatment for tooth decay and are more likely to suffer from these problems. Tooth decay also is a problem for many adults. Adults of some racial and ethnic groups experience more untreated decay.
Periodontal (gum) disease is an infection caused by bacteria under the gum tissue that begin to destroy the gums and bone. Teeth become loose, chewing becomes difficult, and teeth may have to be extracted. Gum disease may also be related to damage elsewhere in the body; recent studies point to associations between oral infections and diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and preterm, low-weight births. Research is underway to further examine these connections.
Many children and adults still go without simple measures that have been proven effective in preventing oral diseases and reducing dental care costs. For example, fluoride prevents tooth decay, and the most cost-effective way to deliver the benefits of fluoride to all residents of a community is through water fluoridation; that is, adjusting the fluoride in the public water supply to the appropriate level for decay prevention. Dental sealants, plastic coatings applied to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth where most decay occurs, are another safe, effective way to prevent cavities. However, only about one-third of children aged 6–19 years have sealants. Although children from lower income families are almost twice as likely to have decay as those from higher income families, they are only half as likely to have sealants.
Here are some things you can do to ensure good oral health for your child:
- Encourage your children to eat regular nutritious meals and avoid frequent between-meal snacking.
- Protect your child’s teeth with fluoride.
- Use a fluoride toothpaste. If your child is less than 7 years old, put only a pea-sized amount on their toothbrush. Seek advice from a dentist or other health care professional before introducing fluoride toothpaste to children under 2 years of age.
- If your drinking water is not fluoridated, talk to a dentist or physician about the best way to protect your child’s teeth.
- Talk to your child’s dentist about dental sealants. They protect teeth from decay.
- Regularly floss teeth.
Proper tooth brushing is critically important to good dental hygiene. Parents can help their children practice proper tooth brushing by starting to clean teeth early, using the right amount of fluoride toothpaste, supervising tooth brushing, and talking to a pediatrician or dentist about a child’s specific fluoride needs. More information on caring for children’s teeth may be found at CDC’s Brush Up on Healthy Teeth pages.