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Oral health: It’s more than a beautiful smile
Let’s face it. We sometimes take oral health for granted until a toothache prevents us from talking or chewing, and it makes us cry out in pain! Oral health is critical to our overall health. You cannot be in good health without having healthy teeth and gums. 
Health professionals often use the phrase “the mouth is a mirror” because a good oral exam can detect signs of poor nutrition, infection, injury and some cancers. New research has even linked chronic oral infections to premature birth and heart disease and gum disease to diabetes.
Oral health means more than a beautiful smile and white teeth. It also means freedom from pain, leads to employability and military preparedness and deployment. 
Statistics show that African-Americans continue to experience the greatest disease burden of poor oral health. According to the Healthy People 2010 data:
·         40 percent of African-American adults ages 35 to 44 have tooth decay;
·         African Americans have higher levels of gingivitis and are more likely to have teeth extracted;
·         more African-Americans 18 years and older have missing teeth when compared to whites;
·         36 percent of African-American children have untreated dental cavities? with dental cavities? representing the most prevalent childhood disease;
·         and African-American males have the highest incident rate of oral cavity and throat cancers than women and any other racial/ethnic groups.
Limited access to dental care is a major contributor to these terrible health statistics. There are a few simple steps, however, that everyone can take to help prevent tooth decay and ensure good oral health. 
Oral health care tips for adults:
  • Brush and floss your teeth every day, at least two times a day.
  • Drink fluoridated water and use fluoride toothpaste.
  • See a dentist.
  • Avoid tobacco. Tobacco use in any form—cigarette, pipes and smokeless (spit) tobacco—increases risks for gum disease, oral infections and oral and throat cancers.
  • Limit alcohol. Heavy use of alcohol can increase your risk for oral and throat cancers.
  • Limit the number of between-meal snacks and choose healthy snacks such as fruits and vegetables.
Tips to help fight tooth decay among children and teens:
  • Start cleaning teeth early. Clean your baby’s teeth by wiping them with a clean damp cloth every day. When more teeth come in, switch to a small, soft toothbrush. To prevent baby bottle tooth decay, do not put the baby to bed with a bottle of milk, juice or any sweet liquid.
  • Schedule your baby’s first dentist appointment by his or her first birthday.
  • Begin using toothpaste with fluoride when your child is 2 years old, unless recommended to do so earlier by your child’s dentist. Supervise young children when brushing. Use only a small amount of toothpaste and teach your child to spit out the toothpaste and to rinse well after brushing.
  • Talk to your dentist about dental sealants for children between ages 6 to 12 years. Take advantage of school-based dental sealant programs if your child is eligible.
  • Encourage teens to carry a travel-size toothbrush and toothpaste, chew sugar-free gum and drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Keep snacks healthy. Just like adults, a healthy diet is a key to good dental health for children of all ages.
By taking these simple steps, you can help increase the likelihood that you and your children will maintain their natural teeth over the course of a lifetime. Oral health is essential to good health and leads to improved quality of life.
Dr. Rhonda Johnson is the medical director of health equity and quality services at Highmark Inc., an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. She leads Highmark’s efforts to reduce racial and ethnic health care disparities among Highmark members through clinical interventions and improvements in health literacy, language access and health-plan cultural competency.
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