February is National Children’s Dental Health Month – and South Carolina needs to take notice.

Reports show some children are missing hours of school each year because of oral health problems, causing them to lose out on critical instruction time. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is encouraging parents to turn their little ones into scholars by helping them improve their oral health habits.

According to a recent report by the personal-finance website WalletHub.com, the emphasis is sorely needed. In order to determine which places have the healthiest teeth and gums in the United States, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 25 metrics. The data set ranges from share of adolescents who visited a dentist in the past year to dental treatment costs to share of adults with low life satisfaction due to oral condition.

In the resulting report on 2018's States with the Best & Worst Dental Health, South Carolina was ninth from last in dental health.

Here are specifics (1=Best; 25=Avg.):

• 26th – percent of adolescents who visited a dentist in the past year.

• 43rd – percent of adults who visited a dentist in the past year.

• 29th – dental treatment costs.

• 34th – dentists per capita.

• 28th – sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.

• 43rd – percent of adults with poor or fair oral condition.

• 31st – percent of adults who experienced oral pain in the past year.

• 23rd – percent of adults with low life satisfaction because of their oral condition.

Although it's preventable, tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children. When left untreated, tooth decay can cause pain and infections that can lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing and learning.

DHEC encourages parents to support good habits at home such as brushing teeth twice a day for two minutes and visiting the dentist regularly.

Even though tooth decay has been on the decline for the past 30 years, it is still prevalent in children ages 6 to 19. South Carolina's Oral Health Needs Assessment in 2012 showed a decline in untreated decay, but over 40 percent of the students screened had some form of decay experience.

Consistent preventive messages and behaviors, and public health interventions such as community water fluoridation can go a long way to improve the oral health status of children in South Carolina.

Here are tips for parents and caregivers to help protect children from future dental issues.

• Oral care begins with wiping out the mouths of infants with a soft cloth even before the first tooth arrives.

• Once teeth arrive, brush your child's teeth with fluoridated toothpaste twice a day for two minutes. Children under age 3 should use a smear of toothpaste, and children over age 3 should use a pea-sized amount.

• Children should be supervised when brushing their teeth until age 6-8.

• Children should visit the dentist regularly beginning at age 1.

• Talk to your pediatrician, family doctor, nurse, or dentist about putting fluoride varnish on your child's teeth as soon as the first tooth appears in the mouth.

• Limit sugary snacks and drinks.

• Ask your child's dentist about dental sealants. Sealants protect teeth from decay.

• Have your child drink tap water that contains fluoride. If you have well water, you can contact your water utility company and request a copy of the utility's most recent "Consumer Confidence Report." This report provides information on the level of fluoride in your drinking (tap) water.

Because a healthy mouth is an important part of overall health, and South Carolina adults also rank so poorly in getting dental care, the theme for Children’s Dental Health Month applies to all ages:

“Brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste and clean between your teeth for a healthy smile."

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