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Your Teen’s Oral Health Habits: Helpful or Harmful?

All your teen’s oral health habits---both helpful and harmful---play a role in determining her oral and overall health.

Your teen’s oral health habits play a major role when it comes to a great smile, a healthy mouth, and overall health. Which habits are helpful, and which are harmful? Daily flossing and twice-daily brushing are a great start—and as always, there’s much more you should know.

Teeth Grinding: Harmful

Teeth grinding is a condition known as bruxism. While some patients clench or grind their teeth due to stress, others do so because of airway issues. Bruxism can occur in children, teens, and adults. Often, those with the condition clench and grind while they sleep, and may not realize it unless someone tells them. However, your teen’s dentist may recognize signs such as worn teeth, bone spurs, and recessed gums. Headaches and sore facial muscles may also indicate bruxism. Left untreated, the condition could lead to painful issues such as jaw joint disorders. If you suspect your teen is suffering with this issue, a dental evaluation is the first step toward resolving it.

Chewing Ice: Harmful

As we recently reported, chewing ice can cause tiny cracks in the enamel that protects the nerve inside the teeth. That’s because tooth enamel is not strong enough to withstand ice’s extreme cold or brittle texture. Cravings for ice may also be a sign of iron deficiency anemia. If your teen chews ice, encourage her to stop for the sake of her teeth—and if the issue involves cravings, consult your teen’s physician as well.

Getting Dental Sealants: Helpful

Dental sealants are a helpful extra form of protection against cavities and decay for children’s and teens’ teeth. Your teen’s dental team can apply them easily and quickly. However, sealants can only protect properly along with diligent oral care, which includes daily flossing and twice-daily brushing. You can read more about dental sealants here.

Snack Foods, Soda, and Sports Drinks: Harmful

Photo of a plate of colorful healthy foods, including raw broccoli, carrots, red cabbage, sweet pepper, and cauliflower It’s well established that many sodas and sports drinks contain extremely high amounts of sugar, which contributes directly to dental decay and cavities. Even drinks sweetened with artificial sweeteners can be harmful, because they’re still high in acid that can lead to tooth erosion. If your teen athlete consumes sports drinks, moderation is key—along with vigorous rinsing with water immediately afterward. Plentiful amounts of water and up to four 8-ounce glasses of milk daily (for a daily total of about 1300 mg of calcium) are healthy drink choices for growing teens.

Many processed snack foods also contain high amounts of sugar. But even those that don’t, such as chips and cheese puffs, can be similarly harmful to teeth since they’re high in acid-producing carbohydrates that can promote tooth decay. Fresh fruit, nuts, real cheese, and raw, crunchy vegetables are all better snack choices that will promote your teen’s oral health.

Oral Piercings: Harmful

Oral piercings and jewelry may be a popular form of self-expression, but are they worth the risk? Mouth jewelry can increase your teen’s chances of developing serious oral health issues, including:

  • Allergies or hypersensitivity to metal
  • Blood vessel damage (possibly including blood loss)
  • Cracked/damaged teeth
  • Drooling
  • Eating difficulties (chewing and swallowing)
  • Filling damage
  • Gum damage
  • Injuries sustained during sports
  • Nerve damage that could affect mouth movement or sense of taste
  • Oral infections
  • Pain
  • Speech impediments
  • Tongue swelling and possible airway blockage
  • X-ray difficulties during dental appointments

The American Dental Association has more details and recommendations on this topic here.

Sleep Deprivation: Harmful

Strictly speaking, it’s not an oral health habit—but a lack of sleep could harm your teen’s oral health. In 2013, a study of sleep disorders and oral health, involving nearly 30,000 adults, found that those who slept fewer than six hours per night ran a higher risk of gum inflammation. While the study included only adults, it’s important to remember that the habits your teen develops now—both helpful and harmful—could carry into adulthood. According to a 2018 American Dental Association article, approximately 42% of American adults over age 30 have some form of periodontitis (gum disease). Encourage your teen to get enough sleep to help avoid this. Studies show that for most teens, nine hours of sleep per night is optimal.

Smoking and Vaping: Harmful

Vaping is not necessarily a helpful alternative to smoking; both are dangerous to oral health. Research has shown that any form of smoking (cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe) increases a smoker’s chance of losing teeth, developing gum disease, and developing mouth cancer. Quitting smoking can be challenging, but as soon as a smoker stops, the body begins healing almost immediately. The Quitter’s Circle website is a useful resource for those who wish to stop smoking.

For teens who use electronic cigarettes, oral health risks are just as high. Vaping is not necessarily a helpful alternative to smoking. According to one study, when e-cigarettes burn, their vapors cause oral cells to become inflamed. This puts the entire mouth at risk of disease, in addition to the risk of serious injury from exploding devices. Flavored e-cigarettes may be even more harmful to your teen, since the risk of inflammation and/or ulcers is higher when certain flavoring chemicals are present. In addition, e-cigarette use may contribute to xerostomia (dry mouth), which can lead to faster tooth decay. Moreover, the nicotine in e-cigarettes can damage your teen’s gum tissue, increasing the likelihood of periodontal issues.

Using Teeth as Tools: Harmful

When the right tool isn’t within reach, some teens might be tempted to use their teeth to accomplish tasks such as cracking a nut or opening a bottle. With such actions, the accompanying risk of cracking teeth, loosening them, or even pulling them out entirely is obvious. Even a “gentler” task such as tearing off a piece of tape can weaken and harm teeth. In cases of extreme damage, patients may require bridges, crowns, dental implants, or other significant treatment. Remind your teens to protect their teeth by using the right tool for the task at hand.

Wearing Custom-Fitted Mouthguards for Sports: Helpful

If your teen is active in sports, a mouthguard is essential for protection against injury. Though stock mouthguards are the least expensive, they usually don’t fit well and can make talking and breathing difficult. In extreme cases, they may also cause teeth to shift. Boil and bite varieties (which work by molding to a wearer’s teeth after softening in water) are available in drugstores and sporting goods stores, and may be more comfortable. However, for optimal comfort and athletic performance, consider asking your teen’s dentist for a customized mouthguard.