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Tooth Decay is Contagious

March 16, 2017

Children with poor oral health are nearly 3 times more likely to miss school because of dental pain – and a third of grade school absences among kids from disadvantaged households are for dental problems.

Most pernicious of all, research shows that one of the major forms of decay-causing bacteria can be easily spread from a mother or caregiver to a small child, said HRSA Senior Dental Advisor Dr. Renee Joskow in a presentation last month.

"Tooth decay is actually five times more common than asthma in children and seven times more common than hay fever … and left untreated, tooth decay can cause problems in other parts of the body."

Voice of experience: Dr. Renee Joskow is a practicing dentist and U.S. Public Health Service Captain. She has worked for the CDC, NIH, Homeland Security, the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General and Columbia University.

The presentation to mark the end of National Children's Dental Health Month highlighted HRSA's efforts to integrate oral health into routine primary care – including $156 million in funding last June that allowed 420 health centers nationwide to add some 1,600 new dentists and related staff.

The new hires bolster a compliment of 12,700 oral health clinicians providing 12 million visits annually in health centers.

Joskow said the need is urgent among the nation's children:

  • More than four out of 10 U.S. kids will have at least one cavity by kindergarten;
  • One in 7 (ages 6-12) suffered a toothache in the previous six months; and
  • Children reporting recent toothaches were 4 times more likely to have a lower grade point average than their pain-free peers.

Prevention is possible, she noted.

While racial and ethnic disparities persist, untreated cavities have decreased among low-income kids. Moreover, dental sealants have proven durable and effective in preventing and arresting cavities on the biting surfaces of teeth, where about 90 percent of cavities in children's permanent teeth occur.

See a detailed breakdown of HRSA oral health initiatives.

Check out the Children's Dental Health Project.

Date Last Reviewed:  July 2017