Teenagers have many pressures and priorities to balance, with schoolwork, extracurricular activities, sports, social influences, changing bodies, and more. With so much on their minds, teenagers don't always make oral health their priority. This can put their mouths at significant risk from the effects of such things as:
- Stress, which can contribute to dental conditions such as tooth grinding or clenching (bruxism) and TMJ disorders (temporomandibular joint dysfunction or TMD).
- Lifestyle choices that impact their oral health.
- Facial injuries from sports or activities , or driving or riding in a car.
- Orthodontics or delays to other necessary dental procedures.
Regular dental visits are important to maintain good oral health. They're also important in identifying broader health risks and concerns as early as possible. A good example is identifying eating disorders , which are often missed until the impact is more severe. Since oral signs of eating disorders can appear earlier than other evidence, a dentist can be the first health care provider to detect that a problem may exist.
Your teenager is learning to accept more responsibility for themselves. With this greater freedom, oral health can suffer, leading to a lifetime of avoidable and expensive dental treatment. It's important for you to monitor their habits, encourage good oral hygiene, and prepare them to be fully accountable for their oral health.
Care at home
The steps needed to keep your teen's mouth healthy are not difficult. They just need to be part of their regular daily routine.
- Brushing for two minutes at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste.
- Flossing once a day.
- Keeping toothbrushes separated from others to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses.
- Limiting or avoiding sugary foods and drinks. Sugary foods, juice, and sports drinks can erode enamel and lead to tooth decay . Let your teen know how important it is to rinse their mouth with water or brush their teeth to help remove the sugar that fuels bacteria and can cause bad breath (halitosis) and promote tooth decay.
- It can be a challenge to get teenagers to maintain a balanced, nutritional diet. Make sure your teen understands that healthy snack choices, like cheese, yogurt, and fresh fruits and vegetables, are much better choices than candy or chips. Candy and chips produce plaque acids that can stick to their teeth unless they are washed off. Diets that are rich in fruits, vegetables and nuts, and lower in carbohydrates (sugars) will go a long way toward maintaining their oral health.
- Ensure that your child wears a properly fitted mouthguard during sports or activities to protect their teeth from injuries.
- Make sure your teen always wears a seatbelt. Failure to wear a seatbelt is a major cause of facial damage.
Care at the dentist
It is important for your teen to visit the dentist regularly as recommended. The exam schedule is based on the dentist's assessment of your teenager's dental health history and current health status , hygiene habits, personal choices, and medical conditions.
During a regular dental visit, you can expect the dentist or hygienist to:
- Take necessary X-ray (radiograph) images to help identify tooth decay, periodontal disease (periodontitis), or other issues that cannot be seen visually. The images will also help the dentist provide an update on the status of your teen's wisdom teeth (third molar).
- Examine your teen's mouth for proper growth and development.
- Look for oral injuries, tooth decay, signs of infection, or other problems.
- Let you know if your child is at higher risk of developing tooth decay. If so, the dentist will advise you on the extra steps needed to protect their teeth. Some risk factors include:
- Other family members with cavities.
- Eating and drinking sugary substances, especially between meals and without rinsing or brushing afterward.
- Wearing braces or orthodontic appliances.
- Special health care needs.
- Clean your teen's teeth and provide you with tips for daily care.
- Discuss fluoride or other preventive treatment options ( sealants , space maintainers , etc.).
- Talk about preventing mouth injuries during sports or activities and what to do in a dental emergency.
- Schedule the next visit.
As your child enters their teen years, they must understand the oral health risks associated with:
Prolonged use of inhalers often used for asthma can contribute to dry mouth (xerostomia), tooth decay, periodontal disease, enamel erosion , thrush (oral candidiasis), mouth sores , and bad breath. Your dentist can recommend ways to help offset these effects and prevent worsening problems.
Sports or activities
Sports and recreational activities, especially those that involve physical contact, involve oral health risks. The most important thing to do is wear a properly fitted mouthguard, face mask, or cage. Talk to your child's dentist about the best protection based on your child's activities.
The teenage years often provide the best opportunity to correct misaligned, crowded, or rotated teeth. During these years, growth and development are nearly complete, but teeth and jawbones are still easily positioned. Your child's general dentist is usually the first person to recognize issues that may require orthodontic treatment . Identifying these issues early on and working together with an orthodontist, your dentist can develop a plan to prepare your child for braces.
Orthodontia is important, but it makes good oral hygiene difficult to maintain. If your teen wears braces, make sure they use a power toothbrush and floss thoroughly between teeth and around the brackets to avoid white spots that can form on teeth when braces are removed.
Wisdom teeth typically begin to break through the gums (gingiva) between the ages of 17-21. Still, it's important to visit the dentist regularly throughout the teen years to allow the dentist to monitor wisdom teeth that are still below the gumline. If it is apparent that one or more wisdom teeth could present problems in the future, your dentist will discuss the issue and make recommendations on how to proceed. It is often a good idea to have wisdom teeth that will require removal extracted before their roots are completely formed. This helps to reduce the risk of complications.
If your dentist recommends that wisdom teeth (or any tooth for that matter) should be extracted, talk to them about the need for opioids for pain management . While recently declining in use in favor of better, non-addictive pain relief, tooth removal (tooth extraction) procedures accounted for 65% of all opioid prescriptions written by dentists between 2013 and 2018.1 Opioids are highly addictive, and it's very important to consider that many addictions begin during the teenage years. If opioids are prescribed, you should monitor your child to ensure they are used according to the directions and only until they are no longer absolutely necessary to manage pain.
Grinding or clenching teeth
Grinding or clenching your teeth can occur in people of all ages. Over time, it can cause tooth wear (attrition), tooth damage, jaw muscle pain, and joint damage. Not all causes of grinding or clenching are fully understood, but stress and anxiety are often contributing factors. If you notice that your teenager exhibits signs of grinding or clenching, talk to their dentist. The dentist can assess the situation and discuss ways to reduce the stresses on their teeth and work toward a long-term solution.
Sexually transmitted infections
The prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in adolescents, especially between 15-19, has been increasing. Screening for oral signs of sexually transmitted infections is essential. Specifically, human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US with 79 million people infected2, has shown a relationship with oral and throat cancers . Since physicians don't regularly conduct oral exams, dentists are in a unique position to discuss HPV vaccination with patients and their parents. Adolescence is the best time for HPV vaccination, which has been reported to be more than 90% effective in preventing cancer-causing oral HPV infections.3They may also provide education on the risks of transmitting diseases and guidelines on safe practices.
Eating disorders are most prevalent in adolescent and young adult females but can affect anyone. They are challenging to detect since many of the associated behaviors are done in secret, but signs can be detected in the mouth at an early stage. Oral symptoms of eating disorders such as enamel erosion, tooth decay, periodontal disease, and mouth sores can become evident in as few as six months.4 If you suspect a loved one may be struggling with an eating disorder, strongly encourage them to visit their dentist or physician.
Vaping and e-cigarettes
Vaping devices and e-cigarettes can be just as harmful to oral tissue and lungs as regular cigarettes, and their use has risen dramatically. In fact, between 2011 and 2018, vaping use increased from 1.5% to 27.5% among U.S. high school students. During 2020, it is estimated that over three million high school students vaped.5 If you suspect your child may be using tobacco or vaping products, tell their dentist so they can support your efforts to explain the dangers of continued use.