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Oral Health and Back to School: Insights From UF Health’s Dr. Olga Ensz

Dental hygienist and patient

Good oral health isn't just about flashing a winning smile. It's foundational to overall wellness. With kids still settling into the young school year, we chatted with Olga Ensz, DMD, a clinical assistant professor at the UF College of Dentistry, about the vital role of dental hygiene in academics.

Oral health plays a silent yet important role in a child’s academic life.

“A child in pain might frequently visit the school nurse, may not sleep well and even have dietary limitations due to dental issues,” Ensz said.

While it’s easy to associate dental health with a beautiful smile, the implications go much deeper:

  • Self-confidence: A child with dental issues, such as misaligned teeth or cavities, may feel self-conscious. This can make them hold back in class discussions, group activities or even something as simple as smiling in a school photo.
  • Pain and discomfort: Dental problems can be painful or uncomfortable, causing distractions in class. A throbbing toothache or sensitivity can make it difficult for a student to concentrate on lessons or exams.
  • Attendance: Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children, and tooth pain is the leading reason kids miss school. School absences can result in missed lessons and a drop in academic performance.

“When teeth are compromised, it affects overall health, the capability to consume nutritious foods and even speech,” Ensz said. “I’ve encountered children fearful of dentist visits who’ve shared being bullied due to visible cavities.”

Tackling common dental issues

Back to school often means a return to routines, but it also brings dental concerns to light.

When it comes to tooth decay, many kids silently suffer from cavities until they are painfully large.

Neglecting to brush or floss, cost, finding a local dentist or even transportation challenges prevent families from accessing dental care early.

“Many don’t feel symptoms until it’s late, making treatments scarier for kids,” Ensz said.

The UF College of Dentistry is countering this trend. They offer free, prevention-focused dental services in most Alachua County public schools.

“We’re helping kids build good habits in a familiar environment,” she said.

Starting next month in schools across Alachua County, the UF College of Dentistry will add dental screenings to the standard health checks for children, which currently cover height, weight, vision and hearing.

“A dental screening is quick, focusing on visible problems like tooth decay or infections,” Ensz said.

Parents receive notes detailing any concerns, along with resources for care even if no issues are found, ensuring all children have access to preventive dental measures and a dental home base, if needed.

Common dental issues include cavities, gum disease, orthodontic issues, sports-related dental injuries and dental anxiety. The run-up to the return to school is a great time to address these issues.

Gum diseases like gingivitis can affect children, especially if oral hygiene isn’t a habit. Signs of gingivitis include swollen gums and bad breath.

Abnormal tooth alignment often begins between ages 6 and 12, so orthodontic care often begins between ages 8 and 14. Treatment that begins while a child is still growing can produce optimal results.

Children who play contact sports should consider mouthguards to prevent injuries.

Fear of dentists is real for many children. Creating a positive, gentle experience during dental visits can help reduce their anxiety.

Oral health-friendly snacks, lunches and drinks

Promoting healthier dietary choices for children is about more than avoiding sugary, refined carbohydrates.

“Opt for fresh fruits, veggies or plain yogurts jazzed up with fruit,” Ensz said.

To make these options appealing, she recommends getting creative, like cutting food into playful shapes or using skewers.

“While some kids might initially resist, often a few introductions to a new healthy food can change their minds. It's an effort that pays off,” she said.

Here’s a curated list of snacks and drinks that not only curb hunger, but also foster healthy teeth and gums:

Reach for these:

  • Cheese: Great source of calcium and helps balance the mouth’s pH. We need that pH to be slightly acidic. A great source of calcium, it also balances the pH in the mouth, reducing the risk of tooth decay.
  • Carrots: Crunchy snack that increases saliva production, washing away food particles and neutralizing acid
  • Apples: Its fibrous texture stimulates the gums. Although they’re sweet, apples are a natural, crunchy tooth cleanser.
  • Nuts: Because they offer protein and minerals, which reduce cavities as they stimulate saliva production
  • Celery: Acts as a natural toothbrush, scraping food particles and bacteria away from your teeth

Avoid these:

  • Sticky candies and sweets: They cling to teeth and increase cavity risk
  • Chips: Because their starches get trapped in teeth and cause plaque
  • Dried fruits: They can be sticky and retain sugars that promote tooth decay
  • Processed meats: They’re often high in sugars and additives
  • White bread: Refined carbohydrates can be as harmful to teeth as sugar
  • Sugary jams and spreads: Because they linger on teeth and create a breeding ground for bacteria

For beverages, water is always the top pick, especially if it is fluoridated. It helps rinse away particles and is sugar-free. Fluoridated water strengthens tooth enamel, making it more resistant to acid attacks and decay. Consuming fluoridated water can repair early tooth damage and prevent cavities.

Milk is an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D, strengthening teeth and bones. However, it’s best to avoid sweetened versions like chocolate or strawberry milk. Brushing after drinking milk helps remove the sugar and reduces the risk of cavities and tooth decay.

If your kids like vegetable juice, stick to non-tomato-based juices, as they tend to be less acidic. Consuming acidic foods and drinks without proper oral care can heighten the risk of enamel erosion and tooth sensitivity.

And for sports hydration, try plain water, coconut water without added sugar, sports electrolyte tablets without added sugar, or unsweetened electrolyte powders. Suboptimal beverage choices include sodas high in sugars and acid, which erode tooth enamel; sugary sports drinks, which can be just as harmful as soda; and fruit juices with added sugar.

Getting ready for school

The hustle of school mornings can sometimes sideline dental routines. However, back-to-school time presents an excellent opportunity to reinforce dental care routines.

“It’s paramount for kids to brush in the morning, especially at night, to prevent food particles from fostering decay overnight,” Ensz said.

Integrating dental care seamlessly into school-prep routines means setting the toothbrush and floss next to the school uniform or creating a morning checklist that includes dental care.

For children who wear orthodontic devices, a quick dental kit in the backpack with a toothbrush, toothpaste and floss can be invaluable for post-lunch cleaning.

Early dental care is crucial. Many might not realize the need to introduce children to dentistry on. But Ensz has seen children as young as 3 years old with multiple, severe cavities.

“Starting care early can not only detect dental issues, but also educates families about at-home care,” Ensz said.

Early dental relationships mean families have an established place to turn for emergencies, like a chipped tooth from a fall.

Empowered parenting

As parents, understanding and promoting dental health can set children up for a lifetime of healthy habits. Asked how parents can ensure their child’s dental well-being, Ensz shared insights rooted in her interactions with parents.

“Many have had negative dental experiences themselves and unwittingly pass those fears onto their kids,” she said.

To break the cycle, Ensz recommends prepping children with upbeat videos about dental visits and emphasizing the positive outcomes.

“Make it an exciting event,” she said. “Highlight that the dentist is there to bolster their dental health.”

Parents need to know that routine checkups, daily dental hygiene that includes brushing twice a day and using dental floss, and a low-sugar, high-calcium diet are all needed to boost dental health.

Regular checkups can prevent problems before they start and early detection often means less-invasive treatments.

Kids need supervision until they can master correct brushing and flossing techniques.

Ready to schedule a visit?

Now that you are equipped with knowledge about the importance of oral health, especially in the context of back to school, it’s time to take action. Whether it’s a routine checkup, specific concerns or just need advice tailored to your child’s needs, Ensz said the dedicated team at UF Health Pediatric Dentistry is here to help.

Call (352) 273-7643 to schedule an appointment. The team looks forward to welcoming you and ensuring a bright smile for your child’s future.

About the author

For the media

Media contact

Peyton Wesner
Communications Manager for UF Health External Communications (352) 273-9620