Cheez Whiz and the quest to improve dental decay in school age children

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Tennille Needham’s gloved hand is covered in gooey orange cheese spread. With her fingers held tightly together, she invites a student from JJ Nearing to brush the pretend plaque from her disgusting digits.

When the student is satisfied, Needham opens her hand, spreading her fingers wide to show what was left behind.

This visual analogy is one of the many tools and tricks in the registered dental hygienist’s arsenal, as she tries to combat the continuing trend in dental decay among school-aged children.

“I get a lot of ‘Ew’ and ‘Gross,'” said Needham of her Cheez Whiz flossing experiment. “They’re pretty taken aback at how much bacteria can stay between the teeth despite very good brushing.”

According to a 2013 Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) study, roughly 19,000 children undergo dental surgery each year.

A full-time dental hygienist from Spruce Grove, Needham has been volunteering her time for the past seven years, providing hundreds of students in her community with dental education presentations.

Last year, with the help of local dentists, she was able to speak to 1,800 students all over the capital region, including St. Albert.

Through a sponsorship by Dr. Robbie Gill and Dr. Trevor Schnepf at McKenney Corner Dental Care, which helped her cover the cost of toothbrushes and floss sticks in her take home bags, Needham made her second visit in two years to St. Albert’s Neil M. Ross and J.J. Nearing elementary schools on Oct. 29.

This year she is hoping to reach 2,300 students in 30 different schools.

While Alberta Health Services does offer school dental services, these programs focus on providing sealant and fluoride to select high-risk schools and not on educating children on how to care for their chops.

“They don’t have the funding to do any education anymore, so it’s about bridging the gap and helping to provide dental education in our local schools,” said Needham.

With fluoridation rates in Alberta communities trending downwards and 30 per cent of Canadians without access to dental benefits, Needham said it’s important to instill proper brushing and flossing habits in children, not only to prevent tooth decay but other future, related health problems like heart disease.

“A healthy mouth means a healthy body,” said Needham.

Take home tips for better oral health

We all know the general rules: brush twice, floss once every day. But what are some other tips and tricks for healthy teeth and gums in children – and adults, for that matter?

• Use an electric toothbrush: The circular motion of an electric toothbrush is not only best for getting rid of plaque; it also stimulates your gums. Contrary to what many people think, your gums need to be brushed. But only a little. A circular motion causes the toothbrush to simply bump against the gums gently, while a back and forth motion can aggravate them. And let the electric brush do its thing, says Needham. Simply move it from one tooth to the next.

• Pattern brush and use a sand timer: Don’t just take the bristles to your mouth haphazardly. It takes time – two minutes is what is recommended – and effort to ensure you don’t neglect any areas. Needham recommends getting your child to follow the following pattern: outside, inside, where you chew. Repeat for the top and bottom rows. Also have a sand or egg timer handy to help your children time their brushing sessions.

• Pack healthy snacks: They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but did you know it could also help prevent gum disease? Eating hard crunchy fruits and vegetables stimulates your gums by bumping up against them as you chew, says Needham. While cheese or yogurt may not be the most interesting dessert, getting your kids to finish school time lunch off with one of those alkaline foods can also go a long way towards cavity prevention. Bacteria in the mouth produces an acidic byproduct that can be tempered with these alkaline foods. Acid breaks down the enamel that protects the tooth, which can eventually lead to cavities.

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Michelle Ferguson