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BLOOMINGTON — Parents of incoming high school students may have another appointment to make to increase the likelihood of their teens having success during the upcoming school year:

A dental exam.

"Dental health gets put on the back burner when kids are in high school," said Dr. Brittany Keck-Flory of Stone Dental in Mount Zion. Not only are teens becoming more independent of their parents but they are getting busier with school work, sports and activities.

"Some of them get off their six-month recall" of dental appointments, Keck-Flory said. "If we can keep them on a schedule, they usually do really well."

When they don't, the resulting cavities and dental pain may result in an inability to focus on school and other responsibilities, said Tammy Brooks, interim administrator of the McLean County Health Department in Bloomington, and Kim Sabin-Pritchett, dental clinic coordinator at the Macon County Health Department in Decatur.

"There is research that says if a child is in pain, that decreases their ability to focus and pay attention in school and it also could create some behavioral issues," Brooks said.

"It's one more way we can assure academic success, if they have a healthy mouth," Brooks said. "It's also a social issue. If they have bad teeth, other kids will notice."

Dental exams have been required for children entering kindergarten, second grade and sixth grade. But a state law signed in January also requires dental exams for incoming ninth graders.

The rules are being drafted and the compliance date has yet to be determined, said Melaney Arnold of the Illinois Department of Public Health. So enforcement of the law may not happen until the 2020-2021 school year.

Dentists, public health professionals, school nurses and even a teen told The Pantagraph that they favor the new law and recommend a dental exam even if enforcement doesn't begin until next year.

"I think that's a good idea," said Tyger Gudeman, 18, of Normal. She spoke following her bi-annual dental exam at the McLean County Health Department earlier this week. The McLean and Macon counties' health departments are among departments that offer dental exams for their counties' low-income residents.

"I don't think a lot of high schoolers have good self-care," Tyger said. "Requiring them to have that check would be good."

"The new Illinois law that will mandate ninth-grade dental examinations is a great victory for oral health champions and will ultimately lead to more youth getting dental exams," said Susy Marcum, curriculum chair for McLean County Unit 5 school nurses.

"There is a connection between children's oral health and their overall performance in school," said Dr. Sheila Strock, vice president of dental services at Delta Dental of Illinois. "Regular visits to the dentist can help detect potential problems before they start affecting your child's attendance and grades."

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Trish Gudeman of Normal talks about the importance of dental health to her family at the McLean County Health Department in Bloomington on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. Her 18-year-old daughter, Tyger, and 12-year-old son, Hiram, were getting checkups in the health department's dental clinic.

"Healthy teeth are a very important part of everyone's overall health," Marcum said. "And maintaining healthy teeth requires diligence in preventative care including brushing teeth twice a day, flossing every day, eating nutritious foods that are low in processed sugar and visiting a dentist every six months. Many children go much longer between visits to the dentist sometimes because of the busyness of family life but primarily due to lack of access."

"We see more kids in their teen years with cavities," said Dr. Scott Hume of Hume Dental Associates, Bloomington. "So I think an exam centering on the high school population would benefit them as they become more independent."

"I think it could be very beneficial because the diet of a lot of high school students can be cavity-causing, including the beverages they drink, such as energy drinks and soda," said Dr. Diane Caruso, a dentist at the McLean County Health Department.

"It's their new go-to drink," Keck-Flory said of sports drinks. "They think it's a health drink but it isn't."

While a sports drink may be a good idea for a student-athlete who has just completed a workout, many teens consume sports drinks routinely, Keck-Flory and Sabin-Pritchett said. Teens should substitute water, low-fat milk, flavored water and sugar-free sports drinks.

Even Tyger, who brushes twice a day and flosses each night, admits to enjoying soda and sweetened tea. "I'll try to cut down on soda and stick to water," she said.

Hume recommends city water, which has fluoride.

Values of continuing dental exams through high school are to educate teens on the importance of re-thinking their drink and to remind teens of the value of flossing, medical professionals said.

"Most teens are OK with brushing but I see problems in between their teeth," Keck-Flory said. "Cavities are a concern. They don't take time to floss. I tell them 'Make it a part of your habit. It's going to get easier.'"

"Ninety percent of people don't even floss," Sabin-Pritchett said. "They don't realize the plaque that lives between their teeth. That feeds decay."

Open wide

Hiram Gudeman, 12, of Normal, gets his teeth checked by McLean County Health Department dental hygienist Ingra Barton on Wednesday, July 24, 2019, at the health department's dental clinic, 200 W. Front St., Bloomington. A new state law requires dental exams for incoming ninth graders but the rules are still being drafted and the law may not take effect until next year.

Hiram Gudeman, 12, Tyger's brother, admitted after his dental exam that while he brushes regularly, he flosses occasionally.

He said he would start flossing regularly. "You don't want holes in your teeth," he said.

"I'm a big advocate for flossing," Tyger said. "You need to set up a routine where you brush and floss every day. When you do it every day, you get used to it."

"A healthy mouth is part of a healthy body," said Trish Gudeman, Tyger's and Hiram's mother.

Gudeman, a single mom who works as an office support specialist at Illinois State University, has been bringing her children to the health department dental clinic for years. How youth are treated at dental offices determines whether they come back, she said.

"They like coming here," Gudeman said.

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Contact Paul Swiech at (309) 820-3275. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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