Teens Often Ignore Dental Health

The teen years are hard on teeth, and Dr. Justin Rader often sees the evidence when adolescent patients open their mouths.

Frequent snacking, sugary lattes and energy drinks take their toll on the enamel of young teeth, whose owners may not be diligent about brushing and flossing.

In a free dental screening at Lakes Middle School, Rader gave a dental hygiene pitch to the patients in his chair, while their parents listened in.

Dental plaque is like “wet goo. It’s soft, so it’s easy to brush off,” the Coeur d’Alene dentist said. “But if plaque stays on your teeth longer than a day, it turns to cement. That’s when you need us to scrape it off.”

Seventeen Kootenai County teens took part in the free dental screening offered through the Panhandle Health District. In three hours, hygienists gave each of the students a fluoride varnish and put protective sealants on 87 teeth. Students who needed follow-up care got referrals and vouchers for free cleanings and fillings.

The dental screenings were part of a health fair at Lakes Middle School. Many of the students were referred by teachers, who often are the ones who spot students with toothaches and other dental problems, said Linda Harder, the health district’s oral health program coordinator.

About 17 percent of Kootenai County residents don’t have health insurance, and even when families do, dental work can be expensive, Harder said.

According to the American Academy of Paediatric Dentistry, teens have distinct oral health needs, including risk factors based on the potential for poor diet, alcohol or tobacco use, jaw injuries from sports and eating disorders.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen a real need in teens for dental services,” said Melanie Collett, Panhandle Health District spokeswoman.

Asher Mattson, 18, relaxed in the dental chair while he got sealants and a fluoride varnish.

“We hadn’t seen the dentist in a long time, so we took this opportunity,” said Mattson, a student at Mountain View Alternative High School in Rathdrum, who came to the screening with his sister.

Mattson has never had a cavity. Karla Marshall, a dental hygienist, told him that she could tell he had good brushing and flossing habits. But it was time for a full check-up, said Marshall, who sent him away with a referral to a dentist.

Not all teens rank that well on dental hygiene. More than 150 teens were asked about brushing and flossing during Panhandle Health District surveys in 2011 and 2012.

About 23 percent of the students said they brushed their teeth only a few times a week. More than half never flossed.

Every child is different, said Amanda Maloney, who brought her three children to the screening.

She has to remind her 13-year-old to brush her teeth, which seems to come more naturally to her 11-year-old.

“The pre-teen and teen years can be hard,” said Dr. Rader. Parents are giving their children more autonomy and responsibility, so they don’t always monitor dental hygiene.

That’s why Dr. Rader works on the educational message for young patients: brush twice daily for two minutes each, floss and use a mouth rinse at night to lower bacteria levels in the mouth.

He’s also developed some vivid imagery to describe how sipping lattes or energy drinks all day affects tooth enamel.

“It’s like pouring acids on minerals,” he said. “You’re washing your tooth away.”

Good dental habits will pay dividends for years to come, said Harder, the oral health programme coordinator.

Tooth decay and gum disease are linked to a variety of problems, including poor academic performance, difficulty making friends and less success later in life, Harder said.

Poor oral health also plays a role in other types of the health problems, including heart disease, strokes and premature births in pregnant women. – Becky Kramer

Panhandle Health dental hygienist Karla Marshall checks on Asher Mattson during a free dental exam during the Teen Dental & Wellness Party at Lake Middle School on March 17, 2016. The exam included screenings, sealants, fluoride varnish and vouchers for cleanings and cavity fillings. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)