Healthy Snacks and Dental Checkups Help Kids Miss Fewer School Days

August 22, 2008

Dentists at USC Offer Tips to Help Kids Head Back to School With a Healthy Smile

Remember oral health when preparing kids to go back to school. Don’t forget to add a toothbrush to the list of pencils, notebooks and paper on your shopping list.

Keeping an eye on kids’ oral health and instilling good habits will help them start the school year right, says Assistant Professor Julie Jenks and Clinical Associate Professor Gardner Beale of the USC School of Dentistry Pediatric Dental Clinic.

A toothbrush and dental floss are great additions to the back-to-school list, Jenks says, and kids should be encouraged to practice healthy habits both at home and at school.

But what a child eats is just as important in preventing caries as oral hygiene, Jenks adds, and parents should pay attention to what’s in their child’s lunchbox and on the menu at school.

Healthy Snacks

"Snacks like chips, cookies and dried fruit have cariogenic [caries-inducing] sugars that can stay stuck on teeth for long periods," Jenks warns. "Fresh fruits and veggies make the healthiest snacks, and things like apple slices, carrot sticks and string cheese even come in lunchbox-friendly packets."

Beale says snacks sweetened with xylitol, an artificial sweetener that actually discourages caries, are good alternatives. He also reminds parents that sodas — containing both sugar and acid content harmful to teeth — should only be consumed sparingly; kids should be encouraged to steer clear of vending machines and opt for milk or water instead.

Mouthguards and Sports Injuries

Beale mentions another danger to kids’ teeth: traumatic injury. Any child participating in sports with any degree of contact should use a mouthguard during play, he says.

Dr. Ramon Roges, Director of the Center for Urgent Care, who serves as the USC Football Team dentist and manufactures the mouthguards for the USC Trojans, says it’s important to wear properly fitted mouthguards, whether you are a professional or collegiate athlete, weekend warrior, fitness fanatic or school-aged child.

"Mouthguards can prevent a lot of serious injury," Roges says. Parents can prepare "boil and bite" mouthguards at home for children whose smiles are changing rapidly as new permanent teeth arrive; dentist-made custom guards can be created for older children who have all of their permanent teeth.

Oral Health Checks

"Parents need to make sure their children have a regular dental checkup before starting school, especially since an oral health assessment is now required for children entering public schools in California," Jenks says. "A dentist can assess the child’s risk for caries, offer protective measures such as sealants and determine if treatment for cavities or other problems is needed."

She adds that parents should let the child’s dentist know about any medications the child takes, since many drugs can have serious oral health risks. Some children’s medicines are sweetened with cariogenic (caries-inducing) sugars; others can cause chemical changes in mouth tissues or saliva that can spur gum disease and tooth decay.

Addressing oral health concerns before they turn into painful, expensive problems is crucial, Beale says. According to school nurses across Los Angeles, mouth pain and tooth complaints are the number one reason kids miss school, and many of the dental procedures needed to fix the problems, such as root canals or tooth extractions, can be very painful for a parent’s budget as well.

"When you’re in pain, you can’t concentrate and you can’t learn," he says. "And as the problem gets worse, it not only hurts more but also gets much more expensive to fix."

Jenks says when a child has so much pain that he or she doesn’t want to eat, growth and development can be seriously affected.

The USC School of Dentistry will host its second annual Family Fun Dental Fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 20, with dentists providing free oral health assessments to children and adults as well as assessment forms for children entering public school. Located on the USC University Park Campus at the Norris Dental Science Center, 925 West 34th Street, the fair will also include educational games, carnival entertainment and tooth fairy story time.

Contact: Angelica Urquijo at (213) 740-6568 (office) or (213) 271-4189 (cell)

University of Southern California
School of Dentistry