Personal Oral Health Milestones
Oral health needs and challenges change throughout a person’s life. At every stage, there are steps we can take to keep our gums and teeth in great condition. Here are some of the most critical milestones in dental development. These are times when you will need to pay special attention to your family’s dental care to ensure a healthy smile for a lifetime.
Baby Teeth (Ages 3 Months to 3 Years)
Baby teeth aren’t designed to last for more than a few years – but that time period is absolutely critical for several reasons. Healthy baby teeth contribute to:
- Proper jaw growth and bite alignment (these first teeth are important placeholders for where adult teeth will eventually grow in)
- Good nutrition (since babies need to learn to chew solid food)
- Normal speech development
- Gum health (tartar on baby teeth can cause gingivitis starting at a very young age)
Babies can begin teething anytime between 3-12 months. A toddler’s full set of 20 baby teeth come in by age 3. As soon as even the tip of a tooth starts peeking through the gums, it’s time to begin a regular cleaning regimen using a soft cloth or a baby toothbrush. Your family dentist can offer advice on if/when to use fluoride products to prevent cavities depending on whether your local water supply is fluoridated. Remember that baby teeth have pulp and a nerve in the center even though they don’t have an adult tooth root. Painful cavities and tooth abscesses can occur in baby teeth just as they do in permanent teeth! Babies should have their first visit with a pediatric dentist by about age 1 to establish routine care.
Permanent Teeth (Ages 6-13)
Kids begin losing their baby teeth starting at about age 6. Usually, this process occurs without complications. However, it’s important to make sure that any tooth that comes out leaves no bits of broken tooth behind. This can lead to an infection in the gums. If a baby tooth must be removed because of damage or decay, a spacer may be inserted to maintain the gap needed for the adult tooth to come in straight.
As adult teeth come in, it’s a great idea to get the first and second molars coated with a dental sealant. This painless procedure involves painting a clear resin over the chewing surfaces of molars (which are especially prone to cavities). The treatment is much less expensive than getting cavities filled and is highly effective at preventing dental decay.
Some of the most important oral health problems to watch out for during this time have to do with orthodontics. A family dentist will usually suggest a consultation with an orthodontist when a child is about 6 or 7. This provides an opportunity to identify issues that may require correction with headgear and/or braces over the next few years. Insufficient jaw growth and problems with tooth spacing are easiest to correct during childhood and early adolescence while the jaw is still growing.
Wisdom Teeth (Ages 13-25)
Third molars often make an appearance during a person’s mid-teens to early twenties. However, they begin forming in the jaw before they actually emerge into the mouth. A family dentist may recommend x-rays to evaluate the position of wisdom teeth at around age 13. If it appears that these molars may cause overcrowding or other dental problems, they may be removed before they erupt into the mouth. In most cases, wisdom teeth do not serve as a fully functional set of molars. They don’t line up correctly or they push other teeth out of the way. They may also be the cause of chronic gum inflammation. Removal is almost always a simple out-patient procedure for teens since the teeth are not firmly anchored in the jaw bone yet. Waiting until later to take out wisdom teeth often results in a more complicated surgery with a longer recovery period.
Adult Oral Health (Ages 20-60)
Reaching adulthood without any cavities or signs of gingivitis is actually a pretty impressive milestone. Most Americans already have both these dental problems to some extent by the time they hit their twenties. However, it’s not too late to prevent further damage by:
- Practicing good dental hygiene with brushing and flossing
- Eating a nutritious diet complete with all the vitamins and minerals your body needs
- Avoiding too many sugary foods and snacks
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Not using tobacco
- Addressing medical conditions that contribute to poor oral health
There are specific life events like pregnancy and menopause that increase the risk of gum disease. It’s especially important to keep up with your dental health routine during these times.
Tooth Loss (Ages 60+)
According to the CDC, one out of four Americans has lost all their teeth by age 60. Most adults have lost several of their permanent teeth by this point. This means there are a lot of seniors who require extensive dental restoration with partial or full dentures. Significant tooth loss leads to problems with everyday activities such as eating and speaking. Many patients suffer from additional oral health problems because of poorly fitted dentures. Whether you have lost just a few teeth or a whole mouthful, it’s important to keep seeing your dentist regularly to keep your gums and underlying bone in good condition. The better oral health you maintain, the better your chances of being a candidate for comfortable, fully functional implant-supported dentures that may well last the rest of your life.