COVID-19 has disrupted multiple aspects of daily life, including how people access dental care.
That’s in part because many dental offices closed during the early part of the pandemic, and some people have stayed away since. In fact, dental care spending in the United States declined by an estimated 38 percent in 2020, with an additional 20 percent slump expected this year, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).
As a result, fewer people may be accessing routine dental care that may help prevent oral pain and untreated disease. Maintaining proper dental care is especially important for children, given that by age 5 nearly 50 percent have at least one cavity. Plus, it’s important to keep baby teeth healthy and in place to help permanent teeth come in properly.
National Children’s Dental Health Month is a reminder for people of all ages that good oral health is important to good overall health. Here are five tips to consider:
Start Early. Good oral health habits should start early. While tooth decay is largely preventable, it unfortunately ranks as the most common chronic disease among children. Recommended dental health guidelines for babies and children include:
• During infancy, clean the baby’s gums with water and a cloth or child-sized toothbrush.
• Once a child reaches age 2, parents can start brushing a baby’s teeth with a soft bristled toothbrush and a smear-sized dab of fluoride toothpaste (no larger than a grain of rice), making sure to teach the toddler to spit out the toothpaste.
• Begin flossing when back teeth start to come in. Toothbrush bristles cannot reach between teeth, leaving those teeth vulnerable to bacteria and decay.
• Never put a baby to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, fruit juice or sweetened liquid, as these liquids can form a sugary film on the baby’s teeth and lead to infection.
Up Your Home Hygiene. Maintaining proper oral health at home is important year-round, but especially if COVID-19 (or other circumstances) requires delaying a trip to the dentist. Recommended dental health guidelines for adults and children include:
• Brush your teeth (and tongue) for up to two minutes, after meals and before bedtime, using a soft-bristled toothbrush.
• Rinse for 30 seconds with a mouthwash, which may help kill bacteria and clean parts of the mouth brushing might miss.
• Floss daily and consider using a water flosser.
• Stay hydrated to help support overall well-being and avoid issues with dry mouth, while limiting sugary snacks and drinks.
Keep Up on Cleanings: For children and adults, the ADA recommends that during the COVID-19 pandemic people continue routine oral health care, including dental checkups, cleanings and preventive care. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that nonemergency dental services be avoided in places where “intense, uncontrolled community transmission” of COVID-19 is occurring. Check local infection rates at websites such as covidactnow.org to evaluate the current situation in your state, city and county.
Consider Alternative Treatments: To help with prevention, parents should consider fluoride supplements for children, which may strengthen tooth enamel and help protect it from decay. Sealants are another option, as these plastic coatings are placed on back teeth to help protect them from decay. They are sometimes covered as a preventive service by dental plans, so ask the dentist about sealants when your child’s molars first come in. As an alternative to filling cavities, the use of silver diamine fluoride has emerged as an option to help stop cavities from worsening, especially among children and older adults with a history of tooth decay. For children with a significant number of cavities, silver diamine fluoride may be an option your dentist discusses with you.
Tap into Tele-dentistry: Virtual care has become an important option for accessing health care amid COVID-19, including for dentistry. Some dentists and dental plans are making available telephone and video consultations, which offer people a starting point for advice and guidance to help select (if needed) an appropriate setting for in-person care. Dental care ranks among the most frequently avoidable emergency room visits, with tele-dentistry providing a resource that may help people make more informed decisions about where to go for in-person care, such as their own dentist, another available local dentist or a primary care physician. Not all dental services are eligible for tele-dentistry.
By considering these tips, you may help maintain or improve your own dental well-being, while also enabling young people to develop good oral health habits.
Dr. Richard Gesker is the Chief Dental Officer for UnitedHealthcare and authored this column in observance of National Children’s Dental Health Month in February.