Why are Teenagers Cavity Prone?

June 2009

By: Dr. Scott R. Harden

Teenagers. They are the wonderful age that spans from childhood innocence to the complexities of adulthood. Teens endure peer pressure, social and sexuality challenges, modern technology, historical standards, family values, moral issues and school demands to name a few. All these untoward factors require an unprecedented balance and must overshadow nature’s curveball of hormonal and physiologic growth coupled with apathy, confusion and a generalized sense of “being awkward”.

It is no wonder teenagers, under the constant guidance of adults directing them toward the better good, trend toward reclusion (disguised as iPods and other electronics) and often become withdrawn in order to take time and figure out themselves during this metamorphosis. A butterfly does this relatively fast; a teenager must endure this for years.
Teenagers have a tremendous challenge coping with all the responsibilities and new demands awaiting them every day. In the mix of many important concerns for teens and moreover for their parents is their dental health. During the teen years, many fundamental things change rapidly and consequently impact the teen, the teen-parent relationship and the quality standards that have been in place through the pre-teen years.

Fact #1. According to the Centers for Disease Control, dental decay is the most common chronic disease of children in their teen and pre-teens.
Fact #2. More than 51 million school hours are lost each year due to dental-related illnesses.
Fact #3. Regular dental check ups are not maintained for a high majority of teenagers and for many are even non-existent.
Fact #4. The average male teen drinks 868 cans of soda a year, equating to 540 Cups of sugar per year (a 12oz soda has 10 tsp of sugar).
Fact #5. Soft drink purchases by teen in schools have increased 1100% in the last 20 years, while the intake of calcium rich drinks have decreased by 30%.
Fact #6. Nationally, 22% (or approximately one in five) of high school students smoke cigarettes.

Let’s briefly explore the title of this article, WHY Are TEENS Cavity Prone? Mother nature is our first problem. As molars (the most cavity prone teeth) erupt slowly through the gum tissue, two problems arise. First, the flap of tissue over them restricts effective tooth brushing of the molar surface and decay can occur by the time the molar fully erupts into the mouth. Second, tissue areas over erupting molars are typically very sore, especially to brushing, and this creates a negative reinforcement to children’s brushing habits, especially their back teeth. Once molars do erupt into the mouth, children are programmed to avoid these areas, making these teeth very prone to decay. Third, molars vary with large and small grooves on the surface that put them in high cavity prone or low cavity prone categories.
During this most important but independent stage of dental development, teens often become disconnected from their parents about their oral hygiene habits. The ongoing question “did you brush your teeth?” fluctuates and feigns over time. A dry toothbrush immediately after a child has gone to bed is always a bad sign. At a time when coaching from parents is most needed, regarding the importance of brushing and the technique of flossing all their new teeth and utilizing their new level of dexterity, teens discourage our help.

Another factor toward teens getting cavities is snacking habits that develop when they are old enough to choose the type and frequency of their munchies. Snacking throughout the day can increase the risk of developing tooth decay. Each time we eat, the bacteria in plaque produce harmful acids that attack our teeth for up to twenty minutes after you eat. Over time these acids can wear down tooth enamel putting them at a higher risk to decay.

Bottled water has taken away a lot of the fluoride intake that children and teens would receive from our regular water supply. This reduces the ability of enamel to resist bacteria as well and increases the risk of tooth decay.
Add braces to a teen’s already compromised brushing and flossing process and we now have insult to injury. Imagine the additional surface area and hiding places for plaque to accumulate. This translates to an increased concentration of bacteria in the oral cavity that greatly increases the risk of tooth decay, extending to areas that normally would not develop decay.

TEEN TIPS for better Dental Health:
Eat healthy snacks rather than sweets and chips. Learn to drink water rather than soda, which helps remove excess bacteria and food debris. Limit snacks to avoid increased bacterial activity on your teeth. Eat nutritious well- balanced meals made of foods from the five food groups. Teens can keep travel-size brushes in lockers or back packs to brush at school. Chewing sugarless gum after meals or snacks can also help cleanse the mouth.

After treating all forms of a teenagers cavity for over twenty years, my advise to parents is to realize teens need independence when brushing and flossing their teeth. From the moment they take control of the toothbrush, they are in control of their dental care. Education and positive reinforcement is the most important tool for teens. Do not hold them to perfect standards because they will not achieve them any better than a lot of adults. Do not scold them if they get cavities because as we learned above there are a lot of reasons for teens to get cavities.

Instead, as parents, realize it is very important during a teenager’s dental development to bring them to the dentist for regular professional check ups twice a year. All the problems discussed above that increase the likelihood of tooth decay in teenagers, can be professionally evaluated and corrected if properly assessed and addressed by the dentist. The use of sealants and other preventive measures can establish a lifetime of happiness from healthy teeth.

During a teen’s dental visit, the dentist and hygienist will take great strides to discuss brushing and flossing techniques, eating habits and apply this information to their individual needs utilizing benefit statements and education that gives teens the basis to make changes and develop good habits for the right reasons. Teamwork from teenagers, parents and the dentist is essential to allow our teenagers to mature into happy healthy adults.