My Favorite Month of the Year is February

By Latashia Bergan B.S. RDH, Washington State Smile Partners Board Chair

You might think February is my favorite month of the year because of Valentine’s Day or even Groundhog Day signaling the coming of spring. No, I actually love February because it’s when we recognized National Children’s Dental Health Month.  Yes, I’m just one of those nerdy dental hygienists!  I’ve been a hygienist for 15 years and although I’ve moved into more administrative roles, I still enjoy the clinical practice of dentistry. I love spending time getting to know my patients and sharing stories.

I joined the Smile Partners Board of Directors in 2016 with a commitment to help bring preventative dental care to those who need it most – young children whose families don’t have the financial means to provide care otherwise.  The organization has made great strides since it was founded, but Smile Partners is limited by minimal funding coming from donations, modest insurance reimbursement and services provided by hygienist at a fraction of the pay they could earn in a private practice.  That said, we do the best we can with what we have.  We are often hard-pressed to provide dental care to all the children in the Puget Sound region who need it. Our teams go out to schools and setup temporary clinics in a conference room or provide services in our mobile clinic van. 

What happens during a visit?

If you could be a fly on the wall with me during one of our clinic days at the local public schools and pre-schools in the Puget Sound area, you would hear what I hear. It’s common for a child to say tell the hygienist they never been to a dentist. Almost as common, children tell us about a pain in their mouth, not knowing what it is. Often, the dull, aching pain has persisted for so long it’s become a normal part of life.

This pain is almost always caused by tooth decay also known as cavities, which is permanently damaged areas of the hard surfaces of the teeth. Cavities develop tiny holes in the teeth which need to be cleaned out and filled permanently by a dentist. Tooth decay is caused from a variety of sources including inadequate dental hygiene that allows bacteria in the mouth to multiply along with frequent snacking on sugary foods and drinks. The kids we see in our clinics are typically for low-income households – but tooth decay isn’t limited to these children. According to the a study done be the Center for Disease Control, 20 percent of children between the ages of  5 and 11 have at least one untreated cavity. 

Dental hygiene is important for reasons other than cavities and gum disease

While it’s common knowledge that poor oral hygiene can lead to painful cavities, it can also affect children’s health in other ways. Most people don’t know that our mouths are filled with copious amounts of bacteria. Normally, our bodies natural defense mechanisms, combined with diligent dental hygiene ensure the bacteria doesn’t harm us. However, for children with poor dental health, inflamed gums and constant infections can render those defenses useless, allowing bacteria in their mouth to enter their bloodstream and lungs. This can cause issue with the respiratory system, such as pneumonia, and later in life, can even lead to heart diseases like endocarditis, which is an infection of the inner lining of the heart or atherosclerosis (also known as “clogged arteries”), and stroke which are all related to inflammation of the gums caused by oral bacteria and poor dental hygiene.  Poor oral health can also be a factor in other health problems, such as immune system disorders and weak bones.

An unhealthy mouth can affect more than a child’s physical health.  All of the pain and health problems surrounding oral health problems means less time in school – a lot less. According to the American Journal of Public Health, children with poor oral health are three times more likely to miss school due to dental pain. Those same absences were associated with poorer school performance.

Behavior Challenges – Consider a Child’s Dental Health, too

Children are also more likely to have issues paying attention and completing tasks due to dental pain. This pain is often such an accepted part of life that children struggle to verbalize it, and instead act out, or let it affect their school work. A child with great oral health is bound to be healthier and more alert. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A child with poor oral health is much more likely to be less healthy overall.

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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Luckily, poor oral health is extremely preventable. That’s one of the reasons I joined the Smile Partners board of directors.  I really believe what we are doing for children and their families puts them on the right track as they grow up to become productive members of our communities. As a hygienist, I want people to know that having constant pain and health issues associated with decaying teeth isn’t normal and it shouldn’t be a problem children even have on their radar. It makes me feel our efforts are so worthwhile when I see the Smile Partners’ dedicated dental hygienists clean teeth, apply sealants, and give children brushing instructions. They are truly doing work with a purpose:  creating happier, healthier children - one smile at a time.

Would you like to give a child a lifetime free from oral pain? Give today.