Could the COVID-19 pandemic be taking a toll on kids' teeth?
A new, nationwide poll found the pandemic has made it harder for parents to get their kids regular dental care. But on the other hand, many say their youngsters are now taking better care of their teeth.
The C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health at Michigan Medicine surveyed almost 1,900 parents with at least one child between the ages of 3 and 18.
About one-third of respondents said the pandemic had made it more difficult to get dental care. That was three times more common for kids covered by Medicaid rather than by private dental insurance.
Parents reported encountering lengthy waits for routine dental checkups. In some cases, the dentist's office had closed or was only seeing urgent cases.
About 60% of parents polled had tried to get preventive dental care for their child since the pandemic began. About 24% encountered a delay and 7% said they couldn't get an appointment at all.
"Regular preventive dental care helps keep children's teeth healthy and allows providers to address any tooth decay or dental problems before they become more serious," said Sarah Clark, co-director of the Mott Poll.
She said the findings highlight how the pandemic may have disrupted families' dental care and worsened insurance-related disparities.
Some of the delays resulted from parents holding off on making appointments because of concern about the risk of COVID-19. About 40% said they didn't want to risk exposure.
About 67% said they consider it safe now for their child to get dental care, while 14% still consider it unsafe to do so and 19% were unsure.
Clark urged parents who are concerned about COVID exposure to contact their child's dentist to find out what safeguards have been put in place.
"It may be helpful for dental providers to be proactive in reminding parents about the importance of regular dental check-ups for children," she said. "Reminder notices and website updates outlining changes to practice operations may also help more parents feel safe bringing children in for their visit."
The American Association of Pediatric Dentists recommends kids have their teeth cleaned and checked every six months once their first tooth comes in. Regular checkups help treat tooth decay and teach parents and kids about dental hygiene. Sealants and flouride varnish can also be applied to protect teeth.
About 15% of parents whose children have Medicaid dental coverage said they had been unable to get an appointment, compared to 4% of those with private insurance and 5% with no coverage at all. Even without the pandemic, it can be more difficult to find a dentist who will accept Medicaid, Clark said.
One unexpected finding: About 1 in 4 parents reported improvements in their child's oral health habits during the pandemic -- including brushing more often (16%); flossing (11%); using a fluoride rinse (9%); and drinking fewer sugary beverages (15%). That included 37% of kids with Medicaid; 32% without dental coverage; and 24% with private insurance.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on children's dental health.
SOURCE: Michigan Medicine, news release, Feb. 15, 2021