Dental Care for Teens and Young Adults (Life Stages)

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Medically Reviewed
by Dr. Lara Coseo
Alyssa Hill
Written by
Alyssa Hill
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Evidence Based
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6 sources cited
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Dental Care for Teens & Young Adults

As adolescents transition into teenagers and young adults, new oral health risks come into play.

Some teens begin experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol in high school. Smoking or drinking at a young age can turn into habits that are difficult to quit as they reach adulthood.

Teenagers should have an established dental care routine at home. Most importantly, they should visit a dentist for professional teeth cleanings at least twice a year.

Common Concerns

The following are common concerns among teens and young adults:

  • Smoking
  • Eating disorders
  • Oral jewelry
  • Alcohol

These factors can negatively impact oral health in the long run.

Tobacco and Nicotine

Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical found in:

  • Cigarettes
  • E-cigarettes
  • Cigars
  • Tobacco

Nicotine use is also one of the leading causes of disease and death in the United States.

Every day, about 2,000 teens under 18 years of age try their first cigarette. Around 300 of those teens become regular cigarette smokers.6

If the smoking rate among teens younger than 18 years of age continues, they are more likely to die prematurely from a smoking-related disease.

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Long-term smoking is also linked to:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Respiratory diseases

Oral health risks associated with smoking:

  • Plaque and tartar buildup — chemicals found in tobacco products decrease saliva flow in the mouth. This results in a heavier buildup of plaque. If plaque isn’t removed daily, tartar (hardened plaque) can form. Tartar can only be removed professionally by a dentist. Over time, unremoved plaque and tartar cause cavities.
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia) — dry mouth is an oral condition that occurs when the mouth’s salivary glands do not produce enough saliva. Tobacco and nicotine slow down how fast the mouth can produce saliva. This can lead to xerostomia. Dry mouth can cause tooth decay, dental erosion, gum disease, mouth sores, thrush, and other oral health conditions.
  • Bad breath (halitosis) — smoking cigarettes and other tobacco products can cause bad breath. This is especially if brushing and flossing are neglected as well.
  • Oral cancer — the primary cause of oral cancer is smoking or chewing tobacco. Oral cancer can affect the mouth, throat, tongue, lips, cheeks, or gums.
  • Gum disease — smoking alone doesn't cause gum disease. Long-term smoking contributes to dry mouth. Dry mouth leads to increased plaque buildup that is difficult to remove. Over time, gingivitis or periodontal disease can develop. These conditions can lead to root decay and eventually tooth loss.
  • Tooth discoloration — smoking can stain teeth yellow, brown, or black over time.
  • Changes in blood circulation — nicotine and its blood vessel constriction effect make the gums less sensitive and less likely to bleed. Smokers may have "masked" or "silent" gum disease.

Eating Disorders

Physical appearance is typically very important for most teens. However, getting “thin enough” can become an obsession for many teenage girls and boys.

This obsession may be a short phase. However, a serious eating disorder can develop over time.

For example, common eating disorders that affect young adults include:

  • Anorexia — anorexia involves a loss of appetite and self-starvation.
  • Bulimia — bulimia involves extreme overeating. This overeating is followed by vomiting, fasting, or using laxatives to prevent weight gain.
  • Binge-eating disorder — like bulimia, binge-eating involves consuming a vast quantity of food and feeling shame afterward. This disorder doesn't include purging or using laxatives to avoid weight gain.

These disorders negatively impact a teen’s physical, mental, and emotional health.

They can also lead to the development of common oral conditions, including:

  • Dental erosion — dental erosion is a condition that occurs when acidic substances wear away tooth enamel. Frequent vomiting results in the repeated flow of stomach acid over the teeth. This vomiting wears away enamel and causes weak and brittle teeth.
  • Nutritional deficiencies — restricting food intake can lead to vitamin deficiencies. For example, not consuming enough calcium promotes gum disease and tooth decay. Bad breath, dry mouth, and canker sores can also develop.
  • Other — frequent vomiting can also cause enlarged salivary glands, cuts in the mouth, and inflamed gums.

Oral Piercings

Many teens and young adults get oral piercings. As a result, mouth jewelry can lead to nerve damage and excessive drooling.

Mouth jewelry can also block x-rays during dental exams.

Oral piercings are commonly placed on the tongue or lips.

This placement may result in serious oral health complications, including:

  • Swelling, bleeding, and infection inside the mouth.
  • Chipped or damaged teeth caused by tongue piercings.
  • Gum recession. This is where the jewelry contacts the gum tissues.
  • Damage to cavity fillings and other dental restorations.

Alcohol

Many teenagers begin experimenting with alcohol and drugs.

Teens are also more likely to binge drink than adults. Binge drinking can lead to alcohol addiction later on.

Alcoholism can result in serious oral health conditions, such as:

  • Periodontal disease (PD) is a severe form of gum disease. It results in irreversible loss of bone and surrounding tissues.
  • Oral cancer is a life-threatening disease. It results in the growth of mouth sores that do not disappear on their own.
  • Other non-life-threatening conditions caused by excessive alcohol use include dry mouth, bad breath, tooth decay, dental erosion, and gingivitis.

Common Dental Treatments and Procedures

Here are some of the common dental treatments and procedures for teens and young adults:

Braces

Once all permanent teeth grow in, many teens develop malocclusions (bad bites) and crooked teeth.

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Braces are the most common type of orthodontic treatment used to fix a patient’s smile.

An orthodontist typically places braces when a patient is between 10 and 15 years of age. Older teens and young adults are also candidates for treatment.

Traditional metal braces are the most effective and affordable option.

Over an 18 month to three year period, traditional metal braces:

  • Fix crowding
  • Align teeth
  • Reposition the jaw

Clear Aligners

Clear aligners are also called invisible aligners. Invisible aligners correct misaligned or crooked teeth.

They are a custom, removable, and “invisible” alternative to braces.

A new set of aligners is needed every one to two weeks. They must be worn for about 22 hours a day to correct misalignment.

Many teens and young adults choose clear aligners over braces because they are more aesthetically pleasing and removable.

Wisdom Teeth Removal

Wisdom teeth (third molars) erupt behind the 12-year-molars (second molars) about five to nine years later.

However, a patient’s jaw is typically not large enough for third molars to erupt naturally. Wisdom teeth are usually removed between 16 and 20 years of age to prevent irregular eruption and misalignment.

Gum Disease Treatment

Puberty and menstruation can cause increased inflammation and gum sensitivity.

As a result, teens are commonly diagnosed with gingivitis. Gingivitis is the mildest form of gum disease.

Common symptoms of gingivitis include gums that are:

  • Swollen
  • Red
  • Tender gums

Treatment for gingivitis includes visiting a dentist for professional teeth cleanings. It also involves practicing good oral health at home.

If gingivitis is left untreated, periodontal disease can form later on.

How To Choose a Dentist for Your Teenager

There are some considerations to make when choosing a dentist for your teenager. These include:

  • Dentist's experience
  • Overall atmosphere
  • Availability
  • Cost
  • Reviews and recommendations
  • How comfortable your teenager feels
  • Treatments available

Most dentists are happy to schedule consultations. During a consultation, you and your teen can meet the dentist in their office and learn more about what they do. During this first meeting, no dental work will be done.

A consultation allows you and your teenager to speak with the dentist and staff. You can also get an overall feel of the practice.

Resources

(1) Dean, Jeffrey A. McDonald and Averys Dentistry for the Child and Adolescent - E-Book. Mosby, 2015.

(2) “Fast Facts | Fact Sheets | Smoking & Tobacco Use | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

(3) Koch Göran, et al. Pediatric Dentistry: a Clinical Approach. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2017.

(4) “Oral Piercings.” Mouth Healthy TM

(5) “Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 June 2019

(6) Youth and Tobacco, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), February 2021

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