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Improving oral health – why and how

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Good oral health means being free of disease, pain or infection. You can eat properly, you can smile without being embarrassed, and you can speak clearly, and your psychosocial wellbeing is not limited by the state of your mouth.

​They were the messages given by MidCentral Health Preschool/adolescent oral health coordinator, Marja Steur, to a Child Health Forum in Palmerston North last night (Wednesday).

Ms Steur was speaking on Improving Oral Health – why and how. She said the most common oral disease is tooth decay. Why should we be concerned? Tooth decay is the most common reason for children’s admission into hospital. In 2013/2014, according to the NZ Health Survey, 35,000 children had teeth removed. And the problem is increasing. The number of three to eight-year-olds admitted to hospital for dental care more than doubled in the 20 years to 2012 according to a Ministry of Health 20-year review. Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease.

The causes of tooth decay are simple. The sugar we eat is used by bacteria in our mouth to produce acid; this acid damages our teeth. Put a different way, it is a poor diet (too much sugar) and poor oral hygiene (sharing spit, and not brushing) that causes tooth decay.

The consequences are far reaching. Rotten teeth cause pain. When you’re in pain, you can’t sleep or eat properly. Children don’t grow well - children with tooth decay are smaller than those with healthy teeth. When they don’t get enough sleep, they can’t learn well, and this affects their opportunities for work and earning later. Appearance and self-esteem can be affected, as can the ability to speak and socialize, all of which can impact mental health.

When baby teeth are extracted before they fall out naturally, adult teeth may come through misplaced - causing further problems. More and more evidence indicates that the bacteria that cause tooth decay are linked with rheumatic fever. A high sugar intake means bad teeth, and also obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and other chronic diseases.

The cost of tooth decay is high - for individual children, as well as for society. The good news is that we can prevent it: brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste; avoid sugar; drink water or plain milk; give teeth a rest; have regular dental care (free for under 18 year olds) and teeth can last a life time.

Our environment also plays a big role. For example, our food has become sweeter in recent years as it has become more low fat - to compensate for loss of flavour. Dentists, such as Dr Rob Beaglehole, know that soft drinks are the leading cause of tooth decay, and are campaigning to limit the availability of such drinks. The most effective public health measure to improve the state of our teeth is fluoridation of the water supply. Fluoride makes teeth stronger. It occurs naturally in water, but at such low levels in NZ that it needs topping up.

Let’s all do what we can to improve the health of our children’s teeth, to reduce their suffering, and improve their futures.

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