Dental Care for Teens and Young Adults (Life Stages)

Dental Care for Teens & Young Adults

As adolescents transition into teenagers and young adults, new oral health risks come into play. For example, some teenagers begin experimenting with cigarettes and alcohol in high school. As a result, smoking or drinking from a young age can turn into habits that are difficult to quit as they reach adulthood.

During this stage of life, teenagers should have an established dental care routine at home. Most importantly, they should also routinely visit a dentist for professional teeth cleanings at least twice a year.

Common Concerns

Smoking, eating disorders, oral jewelry, and alcohol are common concerns among teens and young adults. Furthermore, these factors can negatively impact oral health in the long-run:

smoking cigarette

Tobacco and Nicotine

Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical found in cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. It is also one of the leading causes of disease and death in the United States. Every day, about 2000 teens under 18 years of age try their first cigarette. Consequently, 300 of those teens become regular cigarette smokers. 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. Among others, long-term smoking is also linked to cancer, heart diseases, and 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 to keep the mouth wet. Tobacco and nicotine slow down how fast the mouth can produce saliva, which 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, 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, which leads to increased plaque buildup that is difficult to remove. Over time, gingivitis or periodontal disease can develop, which 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 makes the gums less sensitive and less likely to bleed (less blood flow), so smokers have "masked" or "silent" gum disease.
healthy diet

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, but more often than not, a serious eating disorder develops 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, followed by vomiting, fasting, or using laxatives to prevent weight gain.
  • Binge-Eating Disorder — similar to bulimia, binge-eating involves consuming an unusually large quantity of food and feeling shame afterward. Although, this disorder does not involve 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, which wears away enamel and causes weak and brittle teeth.
  • Nutritional Deficiencies — restricting food intake can lead to vitamin deficiencies. For example, not ingesting 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.
tongue piercing

Oral Piercings

Many teens and young adults get oral piercings. As a result, mouth jewelry can lead to nerve damage and excessive drooling. They can also block x-rays during dental exams. Oral piercings are commonly placed on the tongue or lips, which 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 where the jewelry contacts the gum tissues.
  • Damage to cavity fillings and other dental restorations.
alcohol

Alcohol

Many teenagers begin experimenting with alcohol and drugs. In fact, by age 18, 60 percent of young adults have had at least one drink. Teens are also more likely to binge drink than adults, which can lead to alcohol addiction later on. Alcoholism can result in serious oral health conditions, such as:

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

Common Dental Treatments and Procedures

Braces

metal braces on teeth

Once all permanent teeth grow in, many teens develop malocclusions (bad bites) and crooked teeth. 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. Although, older teens and young adults are also candidates for treatment. Traditional metal braces are the most effective and affordable option. They fix crowding, align teeth, and reposition the jaw over an 18 month to 3 year period.

Clear Aligners

Invisalign braces or invisible retainer isolated on white background

Clear aligners, also called invisible aligners, correct misaligned or crooked teeth. They are a removable and “invisible” alternative to braces that are custom-made for every patient. Patients need a new set of aligners every 1 to 2 weeks and 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. Between 16 and 20 years of age, wisdom teeth are typically removed 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, the mildest form of gum disease. Common symptoms of gingivitis include swollen, red, and tender gums. Treatment for gingivitis includes visiting a dentist for professional teeth cleanings and also practicing good oral health at home. If gingivitis is left untreated, periodontal disease can form later on.


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Resources

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

“Fast Facts | Fact Sheets | Smoking & Tobacco Use | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/index.htm.

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

“Oral Piercings.” Mouth Healthy TM, https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/o/oral-piercings.

“Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 26 June 2019, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/underage-drinking.

Updated on: June 29, 2020
Author
Alyssa Hill
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Medically Reviewed: October 14, 2019
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Lara Coseo
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