COVID-19 should not be a barrier to dental care for children
Dr. Kimberly Tran is a pediatric dentist in the Richmond area and president of the Virginia Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
An alarming new national survey from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that 40 percent of parents have not tried to get preventive dental care for their child since the pandemic started a year ago. Parents cite reasons including risk getting exposed, difficulty finding an appointment, children not having dental problems and cost.
The pandemic has greatly impacted access to oral health care. In early 2020, dental offices temporarily closed for weeks in Virginia and postponed all non-emergency care to help reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) and to “flatten the curve.” Albeit, it was a necessary precaution, it had considerably delayed time-sensitive treatment for many. As dentists began to reopen offices slowly, they found that the pandemic’s impact continued to reverberate. When patients returned, many dentists found that some minor oral health issues had exacerbated and turned into bigger problems.
As a result of nation-wide closure, some in-school oral health care programs and educational events were abruptly cancelled or postponed. Additionally, certain pediatric dental clinics are operating at lower capacity as they implement enhanced safety protocols. Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in disparities in oral health care, especially in children.
In announcing February as Children’s Dental Health Month, Governor Ralph Northam noted that “good dental habits that are learned at a young age and reinforced by parents and dental healthcare providers help people maintain good dental health throughout their lives.”
Governor Northam is correct in his statement as oral health directly impacts overall health and plays a role in children building confidence and healthy behaviors for the rest of their lives. It is essential to integrate oral health and primary health care as they both contribute to a child’s well-being. We know, as dentists, that when tooth decay begins in childhood, it continues to be the strongest indicator of risk into adulthood. A study in the American Journal of Public Health also found that children with poor dental health are at higher risk of dental decay and are more likely to miss school and get lower grades.
Dental caries (cavities) are the most common chronic disease in children older than six. The good news is that they are also largely preventable by incorporating routine dental care as part of your children’s comprehensive health care.
First, schedule routine dental appointments for your children. Nearly all dental offices have reopened in Virginia, and while you may not be able to get an appointment immediately, it is important to go ahead and call and schedule appointments for your children every six months. The ADA and AAPD recommend scheduling your child’s first well-baby checkup when the first tooth appears, or no later than the child’s first birthday. Maintaining regular preventative visits and teeth cleanings with your dentist will help catch any dental issues when they are small and can prevent them from becoming bigger issues in the future. For instance, a small cavity can be identified and fixed by a dentist before it worsens and cause pain and/or dental infection.
Dental offices have changed their safety protocols in order to adhere to the CDC guidelines on COVID-19 precautions; rendering dental offices a safe place. Virginia dentists have implemented enhanced safety protocols to protect patients and team members, including changes to waiting rooms, physical distancing patients, check-in process, temperature checks and questionnaires when patients arrive, personal protective equipment (PPE) and enhanced sanitation protocols between patients.
Second, help and encourage your children to develop and maintain healthy habits at home. Establishing healthy habits now will prove beneficial throughout your children’s lives as they carry their habits into adolescence and adulthood. While some school-based oral health programs have been postponed, you can find the resources you need from the ADA at MouthHealthy.org.
Some good news in the Mott survey is that about a quarter of parents reported at least one positive change in their children’s oral health habits during the pandemic. Those healthy habits include avoiding sugary beverages, brushing twice a day, flossing, and using a fluoride rinse.
The ADA recommends limiting between-meal snacks. If kids crave a snack, offer them nutritious and healthy foods. Sugarless chewing gum after eating can increase saliva flow and help wash out food and decay-producing acid. Also, encourage healthy drink choices like water and milk instead of sugary beverages like juice, soda, energy drinks, etc.
While the pandemic has caused many disruptions in the past year, maintaining your child’s oral health should continue to be a priority. Regular dental visits along with healthy habits at home will serve your children throughout their lifetimes and put them on a road to long-term overall health.