CDC data on oral health shows progress, raises concerns

By the CDHP team

The Children's Dental Health Project is encouraged by new federal data showing a 5% reduction in tooth decay (caries) among children ages 2-5, and a substantial decline in untreated caries for that age group. As noted in the New York Times, however, the prevalence of tooth decay increases throughout childhood, suggesting that the underlying disease process remains unchecked. More than half of 6- to 8-year-olds have decay in their primary teeth and two-thirds of teens experience cavities by the end of high school. Dental sealants, a proven strategy for protecting teeth from decay, also may not be reaching enough children at high risk for cavities.

Caries experience and dental sealants by age (CDC/NSCH)

Ages               Caries experience Untreated decay              Dental sealants in permanent teeth


23% 10% N/A


56%  20% N/A


14%  3% 31%


29% 8% 49%


50% 12% 44%


67% 19% 43%

*primary teeth; **permanent teeth 

Family income status is not detailed in this report, but past findings suggest that young people living in low-wage families have the greatest disease burden. This report reveals persistent inequities in untreated caries by racial/ethnic groups (below). Untreated decay has been shown to affect a child's ability to eat, sleep, speak and play. Pain can hinder their ability to focus in class, and increase school absences. And a child with oral health problems is more likely to have them as an adult. Simply put, the data suggest that most children of color are more likely to experience these disadvantages.

Rates of untreated caries (CDC/NSCH)

        2-8 6-11**  12-19
All children 14% 6% 15%
White (non-Hispanic) 10% 4% 13%
Black (non-Hispanic) 21%  7% 21%
Hispanic 19% 9% 18%
Asian (non-Hispanic) 16% 6% 12%

*permanent teeth only

Again, we are encouraged by the gains we have made in preventing tooth decay in young children. These data suggest how important it is to maintain affordable comprehensive dental coverage (including CHIP), to improve access to care among children at highest risk, and to collect and publish data that show the impact on the health of children. That's the work ahead. 


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Did you know?

75% }
of American Indian/Alaskan Native children have experienced caries by age 5.
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