A new wave of childhood tooth decay

03 February 2021
3 min read

Michael Sultan discusses the impact the pandemic has had on oral health.

In the past few years, children’s oral health has been a hot topic. Both the government and the dental industry have looked at ways to help younger children to avoid tooth decay, implementing anti-obesity schemes, sugar taxes and other measures. Yet something happened which no one had predicted or prepared for – the pandemic.

Now it seems likely that there will be a huge increase in childhood tooth decay once more. In fact, one article I stumbled across suggested that almost half of parents surveyed admitted that their children had missed a dental appointment since the lockdown restrictions were put in place, giving professionals reason to believe that once children do return for a check-up, they will be seeing much more decay.

So, why has the pandemic been so challenging for parents? For starters, the biggest restriction parents have probably faced during the pandemic thus far in regards to their children’s oral health has inevitably been that dentists have not all been open to provide full services. In the first lockdown period, many practices had to completely pause services and only offer emergency solutions. As such, this means that many children likely missed appointments during this period.

We also need to take into account the fact that even once measures began to ease off and practices began to reopen, not everyone felt confident in accessing services such as dentistry. Therefore, many more appointments may have been cancelled during this time to be “on the safe side”, regardless of the safety measures that dental practices put in place. 

There’s also scope to delve into the actual impact of the pandemic on these children’s home lives. It’s been well documented that the lockdown period led to many adults snacking more, drinking more and generally pursuing unhealthier habits. But what about the  children in these homes? One survey suggested that children, too, were eating more unhealthily during these times, mostly because their usual routines had been thrown off. According to the survey, 49 per cent of children were snacking more regularly and sleeping less, both of which can have an impact on childhood tooth decay.

Another source states that the pandemic has only acted to widen the disparity in oral health levels among children from different backgrounds. Again, this makes sense, especially if we take into consideration the levels of unemployment and furlough that have taken place since the pandemic began. People inevitably have less money at their disposal, and for many, dentist appointments are seen as a luxury compared to the basics of living such as paying rent and affording food. This also contributes to the rise in snack food – sugary, non-nutritional food tends to be cheaper than healthier alternatives and more readily available.

So, what can dentists do? The main area to focus on is ensuring that children are getting the appointment times that they need. If you have children on your patient list who haven’t visited in a while, don’t be afraid to send reminders via text or email to let parents know that these appointments are long overdue. Once children are in practice, it’s much easier to assess the damage from there.

From then on it’s back to the ideas we were exploring before the pandemic. Parent and child education is paramount to success, and there is every opportunity for you to take parents aside and speak to them about proper brushing techniques, products and other necessary information. You should also ask parents of young children about their brushing habits and other routines that can impact the oral health of their child – this way you can better gauge what the individual needs of your child patients are and make any suggestions or educate where necessary.

It may even be worth exploring the idea of creating some educational content such as webinars and videos for parents and children to access. These can include short films demonstrating the correct brushing technique, general oral health advice and much more. By making these available on your website and social media, you can give parents and children a valuable resource, even if they are isolating and cannot leave their homes.

These educational opportunities should be marketed appropriately via email and social media channels – don’t be afraid to post them across all available channels to drum up the most interest.

Childhood tooth decay is a persistent problem in our times, and one that has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the pandemic. However, this doesn’t mean it’s a challenge we’re unable to overcome. By seeing these patients as soon as you can and ensuring that parents and the children themselves have a good understanding of oral health, you can do your bit in preventing more children developing decay.