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Shortly after I graduated dental school and established a practice a cousin asked me, "Why are you dentists so expensive?"

I immediately asked when he last saw his dentist to have his teeth cleaned. After some hesitation he replied that it had been about three years. I explained that when routine prevention is ignored, dental decay and/or gum disease can easily become established, which leads to problems often requiring expensive treatment. If you wait to see a dentist until driven by pain, chances are the damage only leaves two options beyond a simple repair: extensive and expensive treatment or the removal of a tooth (or multiple teeth).

February is recognized by the American Dental Association (ADA) as National Children's Dental Health Month. During this month oral health professionals (dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants) help to share the message of education and prevention that should begin at an early age.

Dental caries, or tooth decay, is one of the most common and untreated chronic diseases of children under the age of 19 in the United States. Tooth decay is four times more common than asthma among adolescents 14-17 years of age. Among 2-year-olds, 11 percent have tooth decay and, by the age of 5, the number increases to 44 percent.

Oral health is an integral part of overall health for all ages. Dental decay and resultant pain have been associated with greater numbers of emergency room visits, hospitalization, diminished ability to learn or work, insufficient physical development, and loss of school and/or work days. For children alone, dental pain has been estimated to result in 51 million school hours lost for the children.

Two of the largest hindrances for people seeking regular dental care are fear and expense.

By starting a child with regular preventive-care visits to the dentist, the fear factor can be minimized or avoided altogether. Children get used to the dental office, especially if the treatment involves a gentle cleaning of the teeth and a pleasant visit with the staff. Additionally, the dental professionals are able to monitor the growth and development of the child. If decay is detected early, the treatment is relatively simple under local anesthesia.

When children do not visit the dentist for regular preventive care, undiagnosed decay can advance to the point of pain and the possibility of developing an abscess. If a child's first dental visit is the result of a dental pain emergency, there is a great likelihood the child relates any future dental visit to pain, fear and anxiety.

Addressing the second concern of finances also relates to regular preventive care. Routine preventive visits allow the dental professional to keep teeth clean and free of cavity-causing bacteria as well as the bacteria that leads to gum disease. Any problems such as decay or gum disease can be discovered earlier when treatment options usually are simple and less expensive.

Dental cleanings can be compared to the need for the recommended oil change for proper vehicle maintenance. Without that routine care, your vehicle will eventually stop functioning altogether. To ignore regular dental cleanings as a "cost-saving measure" can lead to potentially larger expenses in the future for treating the advanced stages of dental decay and/or periodontal disease. Often that expense may be too much for an individual, and as a result they may be limited to removal of their teeth. Tooth loss is not a given when proper measures are observed to maintain the health of your mouth.

Good dental health is important to everyone. Increasingly, the medical community is seeing a correlation between oral health and other chronic systemic health issues.

Surgical procedures, such as joint replacement, are often delayed until a patient's oral health is treated and improved. Diabetic patients who have periodontal (gum) disease have a very difficult issue trying to maintain their A1c levels. Patients in long-term-care facilities are susceptible to aspiration pneumonia if their oral cavities are teaming with bacteria associated with gum diseases.

While the eyes may serve as the window to the soul, the mouth can provide a glance to your health. Surveys have indicated that a smile is one of the first things people recognize. Don't treat your teeth like a throw-away body part. Our teeth were meant to last us a lifetime. Be good to your teeth, or they will be false to you.

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Lindy Bollen Jr., DDS, is director of the Office of Oral Health at the Arkansas Department of Health.

Editorial on 02/11/2019

Print Headline: Care with bite

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