Even before COVID-19, the rate of dental decay in Australia was increasing, particularly in children. Australian figures show approximately 33% of children less than 5 years of age have dental decay in their baby teeth, while approximately 50% of children aged 12 have experienced dental decay in at least one permanent tooth.

Dental decay in children can progress rapidly and may require hospitalisation to treat the associated infections. In Australia, approximately 26,000 hospital admissions are required annually to treat dental decay, making it the leading cause of preventable hospitalisations in Australian children.

A recent study has analysed Australian Government data on dental services provided to children during the height of COVID-19 in 2020. Dental practices were heavily restricted during the lockdown period, restricting their ability to diagnose and treat active dental disease. As a result, the authors have predicted “poorer oral health outcomes in the next 6 to 12 months at least.” Apart from the delay in seeking regular preventive dental check-up appointments, lockdown and home schooling may have altered our daily regular brushing routine and may have increased the opportunity for more frequent snacking.

With this in mind, it is important that we start the new school year with a healthy dental diet. Remember there are many hidden snacks in your child’s diet. Class birthday cupcakes and other snacks from school friends will easily creep into your child’s diet, without you being aware. Health foods may not always be healthy from a dental point of view as well. Many snack bars are very high in sugar and contain ingredients such as chocolate and dried fruits that may stick to teeth for a long time, increasing the risk of decay. Other foods such as biscuits, crackers and potato chips have the potential to lead to dental decay. Likewise, sipping juice or frozen juice bottles, although refreshing, will also prolong the food source for decay-causing bacteria. Water remains the best option for a refreshing drink.

For a healthy snack, fruits like mini cucumbers, carrots and tiny tomatoes are good alternatives. Cheese sticks also provide large amounts of much-needed calcium. Cheddar, swiss and mozzarella all stimulate saliva glands to clear the mouth of debris. Saliva helps to protect teeth by neutralising acid produced after eating sugary snacks.

Back to school may also mean back to sport. Mouthguards are one of the simplest ways to protect your child’s teeth. Even children as young as 7 have the potential to damage their permanent teeth and should be wearing a mouth guard. There are many types of mouthguards available depending on the age and sport involved. Your dentist is the best person to give advice on which one is most suitable for your child. Lastly, don’t forget to floss! Dental flossing of teeth is the only way to prevent holes forming in between teeth and children need to brush and floss twice daily. It is recommended this is supervised by an adult until the child reaches the age of 12.

Dr Ian Sweeney is a dental surgeon at
Northside Dental & Implant Centre, Turramurra.