Early tooth decay has tremendous human and economic costs
Caries, the disease that causes tooth decay, is the most common chronic disease of early childhood. Roughly 1 in 6 preschool-age children has experienced a cavity, and the rates are higher for children from low-income families. In addition to pain, toothaches and other dental problems can potentially disrupt every aspect of a child's life, including their ability to speak, eat, sleep, socialize and attend school.
Although tooth decay is largely preventable, 43% of Americans believe they have only some or no control over whether they get a cavity. Actually, there are concrete steps that parents can take to keep their children's teeth — and their own — healthy. Reaching kids early is critical because children who suffer cavities in their primary teeth are nearly three times more likely to develop cavities in their permanent teeth.
An Obstacle to Student Learning
Tooth decay can impose long-term costs on children and families. Kids who suffer dental pain are three times more likely to miss school due to dental pain. It makes sense that kids who miss class or are distracted by tooth pain would see their grades suffer. The research bears this out: teens with recent dental pain are four times more likely to have a lower grade-point average.
A Financial Burden for Families and States
Nearly 1 in 5 of all U.S. children’s healthcare dollars are spent on dental care. And the costs of treating a disease (rather than preventing it) can add up quickly:
- A 2014 study found that in one year alone, children made 215,073 visits to hospital ERs for preventable dental conditions, and the cost of these visits exceeded $104 million.
- The lifetime cost of treating a single decayed tooth can exceed $6,000.
- Young children with rampant tooth decay generally need to be treated in hospital operating rooms (ORs) under general anesthesia, which can be a risk to developing brains. The average per-child cost of OR treatments can range from $5,500 to $15,000.
- According to the National Governor's Association, a "significant portion" of OR costs for treating dental disease are paid by taxpayers through Medicaid and other public programs.
The bacteria that causes tooth decay is a chronic condition that typically lasts into adulthood — with new costs and consequences. That's why it's essential to prevent and stop cavities in childhood.
Despite the best efforts of many dentists, dental hygienists, pediatricians and others, our system of care tends to incentivize treatment over prevention. End Cavities wants to build momentum for system changes that focus on preventing caries or keeping it from progressing to a cavity. Help us by using fact sheets, sharing videos and making use of other tools on our Resources page.