Oral Health Problems in Children

Medically Reviewed on 12/14/2022
Oral Health Problems in Children
Dental caries are the most prevalent chronic disease of childhood.

Although there are several problems that affect the oral health of children, dental caries remains one of the most commonly seen oral diseases during childhood.

Other common oral health problems in children include:

  • Tooth decay
  • Thumb sucking
  • Tongue thrusting
  • Lip sucking
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Gum diseases
  • Early tooth loss

Leading experts focus on prevention and health care, including activities promoting oral health during preconception, pregnancy, and the first three years of life. Good oral health in infancy and early childhood is the precursor to better outcomes at later stages of life.

Intrauterine environment (including factors like maternal health, smoking, and infections), periods of development, and environmental exposures significantly affect oral health outcomes in adulthood.

What are the common oral health issues in children?

Common oral health issues include:

  • Baby bottle tooth decay
    • Baby bottle tooth decay (early childhood caries or nursing caries) occurs when a baby's teeth are in frequent contact with sugars from drinks, such as fruit juices and milk formula.
    • When breastfed infants fall asleep with milk in their mouth, they are at a higher risk of tooth decay.
    • Decayed or damaged baby teeth cannot guide permanent teeth into their proper position, resulting in crowded or crooked permanent teeth or an abscessed tooth.
  • Dental caries
    • A multifactorial disease characterized by tooth decay. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is childhood's most prevalent chronic disease.
    • This condition begins with an imbalance in microbial biofilms covering the tooth surfaces. When decay-causing bacteria in the mouth come into contact with sugars from food and drinks, they produce acids that attack the tooth’s enamel and cause mineral loss.
    • Although genetic factors can affect susceptibility to dental caries, their interactions with environmental factors, such as increased exposure to cariogenic bacteria, high frequency of sugar consumption, inadequate salivary composition or flow, delayed or insufficient fluoride exposure, and poor oral hygiene, appear to be more highly predictive of dental caries in children. 
    • Other commonly observed risk factors for dental caries include poverty, race, and ethnicity, and maternal oral health status.
  • Thumb sucking
    • Most infants suck their thumbs, fingers, pacifiers, or toys, which gives them a sense of emotional security and comfort; however, if the habit of thumb-sucking persists beyond the age of five years, dental problems can occur.
    • Depending on the intensity and duration, thumb sucking can lead to various dental issues, such as misalignment of the teeth, difficulty with the correct pronunciation of words, and the malformation of the roof of the mouth.
  • Tongue thrusting
    • Tongue thrusting is an oral habit of sealing the mouth for swallowing by pushing the top of the tongue forward against the lips or between the top and bottom teeth.
    • This habit can exert pressure against the front teeth, resulting in misalignment and possibly interfering with proper speech development.
  • Lip sucking
    • Lip sucking involves repeatedly holding the lower lip beneath the upper front teeth.
    • Practicing this habit may result in an overbite and improper speech. 
  • Early tooth loss
    • Premature or early loss of baby teeth might occur from tooth decay, injury, or lack of jaw space.
    • In case of early loss of teeth, the nearby teeth can tip or shift. When a permanent tooth tries to emerge into its space, there may not be enough room, resulting in emerging of tilted, crooked, or misaligned teeth, eventually causing problems with chewing or the temporomandibular joint (which connects the jawbone to the skull).
  • Tooth sensitivity
    • Refers to sharp and temporary pain when brushing, eating, and drinking.
    • Sensitive teeth are often the result of worn tooth enamel, exposed tooth roots, cavities, a cracked or chipped tooth, worn filling, or gum disease.
  • Gingivitis and gum disease
    • Gingivitis is a periodontal disease characterized by irritation, redness, and swelling of the gingiva, the part of the gum around the base of teeth.
    • Untreated gingivitis can progress to periodontitis (gum disease that spreads to underlying tissue and bone) and may lead to tooth loss.


What causes tooth decay? See Answer

How can you prevent common pediatric dental problems?

Here are the few best ways to protect children’s oral health and lower their risk of oral health issues:

  • To prevent baby bottle tooth decay
    • Avoid giving a bottle filled with sugary drinks or milk during the day and use a pacifier instead.
    • Do not dip the pacifier in sugar, honey, or any other sugary liquid.
    • Avoid adding sugar (in any form) to the baby's food.
    • Use a wet cloth or gauze piece to wipe teeth and gums after every feeding.
  • To prevent thumb-sucking habits
    • Encourage your child to quit the habit through positive reinforcement.
    • Avoid negative reinforcement, such as scolding, nagging, or punishments.
    • Praise or reward them for successfully avoiding the habit.
    • Cover the child’s thumb with a band-aid that may act as a reminder to overcome the habit.
    • Talk to them if they are facing some stressful situation at home or school and try to correct the situation.
    • Try dental appliances to prevent sucking.
  • To prevent tooth sensitivity
    • Make sure your child uses a desensitizing toothpaste.
    • Apply fluoride to the sensitive areas of the child’s teeth to strengthen tooth enamel and reduce pain.
    • Do not let your child eat or drink acidic foods and drinks.
  • To prevent gingivitis/gum diseases
    • Inculcate in your child a habit of brushing their teeth at least twice a day.
    • Ensure they are flossing adequately.
    • Limit the intake of sugar.
    • Schedule regular appointments with a pediatric dentist for dental checkups and cleanings.

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Medically Reviewed on 12/14/2022
Image Source: iStock image

Oral Health Across the Lifespan: Children. NIH: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK578299/`

Oral Health Problems in Children. WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/oral-health/oral-health-problems-children

Children’s Oral Health. CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/oralhealth/basics/childrens-oral-health/index.html