Every child needs a healthy smile – and strong teeth are only part of the equation. While a cavity affects only the tooth, gingivitis can inflame the gums and damage the bones and surrounding tissues of the mouth. While you may associate gum disease with older people, it can also be a problem for children and teens. We asked Boston Children’s dentist Rosalyn Sulyanto and dental hygienist Victoria Grady to share their top tips for families.
1. Uncontrolled plaque is the first problem.
Plaque — the sticky film that forms when bacteria in the mouth release acids that break down the carbohydrates of foods and drinks — is the cause of both cavities and gum disease. Everyone has plaque, but whether it becomes a problem depends on how well you brush and floss. When plaque builds up and hardens, it becomes tartar, which is difficult to remove with a toothbrush and can lead to chronic gum irritation.
2. Children usually have gingivitis when they get gum disease.
Gingivitis is the most common form of gum disease in children. It is also the mildest form and can be treated without surgery or medication. Symptoms are easy to detect: Your child’s gums may look red, swollen and tender to the touch, and bleed easily while brushing and flossing. The good news? With consistent brushing and flossing — and regular cleanings by a dental hygienist — gingivitis is treatable.
3. Poor oral hygiene is not always the cause.
Gum disease is not always a matter of inadequate oral hygiene. Other conditions can contribute to gingivitis and periodontitis, a more serious form of gum disease, in both children and adults. Crowded teeth are harder to clean and can cause tartar. Malocclusion, the irregular contact between the upper and lower jaw, can also cause food to get stuck in the gums. Breathing with an open mouth can dry out the mouth and alter the composition of natural bacteria, which can lead to gum disease.
4. Gum disease affects overall health.
Some studies have shown that the bacteria that inflame gums can do the same for the heart and lungs. Gum disease is also associated with poor blood sugar control, and in diabetics, a weakened immune system can exacerbate the effects of periodontal disease.
5. Intensive treatment may be required.
Advanced periodontitis is uncommon in children, but it can occur. Gums receding from teeth, loose teeth and persistent bad breath are signs of moderate to severe gum disease. Treatments include a thorough cleaning of the teeth and gums to remove plaque and tartar, or different types of grafts can be used to restore the gums.
6. Proper gum care should be part of every child’s daily routine.
Consistent dental care at home and regular dental exams and cleanings will prevent gum disease in most children. With your help or alone, have your child floss daily. Also, have them gently brush each tooth and gums in a circular motion, at a 45-degree angle, with a soft-bristled toothbrush dabbed with fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day. It also doesn’t hurt to brush and floss after every meal. Children who take care of their teeth can also use an antibacterial mouthwash. If your child has a mouth condition that prevents thorough brushing and flossing, or has a disease that causes the gums to become inflamed, talk to your dentist.
Read more about Boston Children’s Department of Dentistry or make an appointment.