A young female teen with braces is sitting in a treatment chair  smiling at the camera while the dental hygienist stands behind her

Dental Care Through Their Ages, Part 3: Oral Health for Teenagers

Nov 22, 2018

Author: Natalie Bradley

As dental practitioners, we need to have the skills to treat patients of all ages. Offering guidance on oral health for teenagers can raise specific challenges. Your adolescent patients are transitioning from children to adults emotionally as well as physically, and it's important to build effective relationships with them to empower them to care for their own oral health.

Motivation and Caries Risk

Poor oral hygiene and poor dental motivation are common problems for young people ages 12 to 18. Many providers write this off as an "attitude problem," but consider the barriers your teen patients may be facing, like a busy schedule or not knowing the causes and effects of caries. Poor oral hygiene could also be a result of mental health difficulties. Evaluate your patients' habits and behaviors to paint a full picture of their caries risk.

Many adolescent patients face the oral hygiene challenge of orthodontic treatment. Without proper instruction, it will be tricky for teens to clean around a fixed orthodontic appliance, which could lead to demineralization around brackets and periodontal problems. Explain to teenage patients that their caries risk will be elevated as long as they still have braces or another fixed oral appliance.

You can prescribe a high-fluoride toothpaste to reduce caries risk in patients who are at a higher risk of decay, and provide in-office fluoride treatments. Young patients could also benefit from an antiplaque antigingivitis mouthwash like Colgate Total Advanced Pro-Shield that protects even after eating and drinking.

Orthodontic Partnerships

The teenage years are a common age for orthodontic treatment. From a clinical point of view, this will involve close communication between you, your team and a patient's orthodontist to ensure effective shared care. You can help your patients and care partners by identifying malocclusions and other problems early, for example, impacted or ectopic teeth. This will make sure that treatment is not delayed if a patient wants to be out of braces by the time they reach their late teenage years.

Maintain a close working relationship with local orthodontists, and keep a clear referral pathway to ensure there are no delays in treatment. This will also help you communicate with an orthodontist throughout a patient's treatment plan if any problems arise.

Building Relationships

A critical part of oral health for teenagers is building a trusting relationship between dentist and patient. This can be a struggle, and some teenagers may be easier to talk with than others. I recommend spending time with these patients to get to know them, and gradually adjusting your communication methods with them as they age. There is nothing worse for a teenager than being spoken to the same way as when they were a child!

Try to work out your young patients' motivations. Their passion in life could be school, sports, hobbies or friends. Something I like to do is ask them about what music they follow and encourage them to choose a song they'd like to listen to during their dental treatment. Picking the soundtrack of their appointment helps give them a feeling of control while building trust between you.

You may also need to work with a parent or guardian to help motivate a teenager's oral health self-care. This could be with technology like tooth brushing apps where you can enter customized advice. Inform parents that they can serve as a good role model for their children if they remember to brush and floss every day.

Treating young people can be very fulfilling as you watch them grow from a child into a young adult. Communicating effectively with these patients can be challenging during the teenage transition years, but if dentists persevere and get to know each individual, we can build trusting dentist-patient relationships.