Teens need to keep dental health in mind, too

While focus is often on younger kids, teen’s choices can impact whole lives

By Dr. Stephanie McGann, DMD FAGD, Columnist, The Times

UTStephCollogoToday, thanks to improved home care and the widespread use of fluorides, many teens have very few serious dental issues. However, that does not make our young patients’ immune from dental concerns. When working with young people I believe knowledge is power. It is important for our teens to know the whole story.

Many teens will be told to have their wisdom teeth removed. This often occurs when there is not enough room for the teeth to erupt normally. In some cases pressure from developing 3rd molars can cause teeth to become more crowded. Many orthodontists request that their patients have their wisdom teeth removed if they are a crowding risk. Wisdom teeth are the 3rd set of permanent molars that normally erupt between 16 and 21 when a person is mature enough to have some “wisdom.” Impacted wisdom teeth are teeth that cannot erupt normally. Some impacted teeth can go on to develop cysts around them or cause damage to the tooth in front of it. It is important for your dentist to monitor wisdom teeth. With teenagers’ busy schedule and college looming it is important to be pro-active when it comes to wisdom teeth.

Teenagers and young adults are more likely to have dental problems related to oral personal expression. While expressing one’s self is important to many, I believe it is important to know the potential risks as well. Piercings on the tongue and lips can cause trauma to oral tissues when the jewelry rubs against the gums or cheeks.

Teeth have been cracked and broken when the jewelry is accidentally bitten. Infections around the jewelry can cause swelling in the tongue, if severe can compromise the airway and be potentially life-threatening. Uvula piercing (that thing that hangs down in the back of your mouth) is becoming more popular. The risk this practice risks swallowing the jewelry or damaging the vocal cords if it gets dislodged. We have seen more severe body modifications relating to the oral area. Tongue splitting, a technique devised to give someone a forked tongue, can have a lot of unintended consequences. Speech may be altered, infections can cause serious injury or even death, and patients with split tongues may develop scar tissues that make the tongue less flexible. The inability to adequately move food around the mouth could result in an increased risk of choking.

The one that disturbs me the most are the gauged openings in the mouth area. This modification allows an opening in the cheek or lower lip so that even with the mouth closed, the teeth are visible. This practice may make it difficult to drink and hydrate adequately. Some of these modifications may also make playing certain musical (wind) instruments impossibility. The exposed area of the mouth is prone to dryness that can dramatically increase the risk of tooth decay and gum disease in these areas. With all body modifications the risk of hepatitis or other disease from less than reputable piercing practices are always a concern. When we consider any body modification, dental or otherwise, it’s important to review the risks and rewards to make wise choices.

One other concern is the use of “grills”. Some grills, coverings for the front teeth that are often gold or jewel encrusted, can be removed easily and the teeth underneath cleaned, others have been press fit to the teeth and when they finally are removed we find significant decay and damage underneath.   Grills are now easy to get – one only has to go as far as eBay to find an assortment of decorative options. These are often sold as “one size fits all.” In addition to damaging the teeth underneath them, they may also move the teeth, causing gaps or pain as the teeth are forced into the shape of the grill. If you really need to wear glam teeth on Saturday night – ask your dentist to adjust them for you.

Drug use can cause dental damage. The worst is Methamphetamine. “Meth Mouth” as we refer to it in dentistry is a rapidly advancing dark stained decay on many teeth.   This very dark brown or almost black decay on front teeth can cause pain and tooth fracture. Even when the drugs are stopped the damage has been done. Meth use has caused many young adults in America to lose most or all of their teeth.

Eating disorders must also be discussed when we think of dental concerns of young adults. The frequent purging associated with bulimia causes the teeth to be soaked in stomach acid repeatedly. The act of purging can erode the inside surface of most or all of the teeth. Teeth can get thinner, shorter, and more brittle and can even discolor. This same damage can be seen in any patient who vomits often. The damage is not reversible, and even if the eating disorder is treated, the teeth will not heal.

Last but hardly least is smoking. Smoking will stain teeth, damage oral tissues, and increase the risk for oral and other cancers. Smoking will damage taste buds and slows healing after surgical procedures. Regular smokers will have an increased risk for gum disease and tooth decay. If you already smoke, stop. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.

If you are having your wisdom teeth out, listen to the instructions and don’t smoke after surgery.

While this all sounds like doom and gloom it really only emphasizes the need for healthy choices. It is possible to go through life with a healthy mouth. We see it every day.

Tips for a healthy smile for life.

Brush 2 min 2x a day

Floss – a good job once a day

Use toothpaste with fluoride

If teeth have been damaged, get them repaired – the sooner the better

Visit your dentist twice a year and follow their recommendations

Make good choices when it comes to your mouth and body.


Dr. Stephanie McGann, who has more than two decades of dental practice experience, is a resident of the Unionville area and along with her partner, Dr. Marie Scott, operates The Brandywine Smile Center, a family-friendly dental practice in Concordville. Dr. McGann has opened a new practice in Valley Township, Rainbow Valley Dental. She is a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry.

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