Millions of children could face a lifetime of rotten teeth in the wake of the pandemic, with a halving in the number undergoing dental checks, experts have warned.
NHS figures show the number undergoing check-ups fell by 50 per cent during the first year of the pandemic, with the worst trends seen among the youngest age groups.
In total, the number of under 15s who saw a dentist fell from 5.8 million to 2.9 million – a fall of half in just in one year.
This means less than three in ten children underwent checks, compared with nearly six in ten the year before.
The youngest children were least likely to have had check ups, with many likely to have never seen a dentist at all, experts said.
There were just 468,000 appointments for under 5s in 2020, a 60 per cent fall from almost 1.2 million the year before, the figures show. This means just one in seven children under the age of five saw a dentist last year – compared with one in three in 2019.
Generation could be forced to endure operations
Dentists said the lack of check-ups in the early years could leave a generation at risk of tooth decay, and forced to endure hospital operations, which could have been avoided with preventive care.
Tooth decay is already the most common reason for children aged five to nine to be admitted to hospital, with many enduring surgery under anaesthetic for want of preventive care earlier.
Latest annual figures show the number of admissions are twice those for acute tonsillitis, among children aged five to nine.
The new figures show millions of children have missed basic dental checks and treatment since the start of the pandemic.
“The current situation is truly shocking.” says Dr Saul Konviser, from the charity Dental Wellness Trust.
“Even before the pandemic, tooth decay amongst children was extremely worrying but the events of the past eighteen months have exacerbated things massively.
“Amongst some of the children that needed fillings, they now need extractions. The list of emergency appointments is growing by the day as we are scrambling to catch up.”
Rise in sugary drink intake a factor
Delays to preventative care in childhood also put children at higher risk of developing tooth decay later in life, Dr Konviser said.
London dentist Dr Linda Greenwall said: “The UK is set to see higher rates of tooth decay among the Covid generation of pre-school children who have never seen a dentist or delayed seeing one for too long.”
She said the situation had been worsened by children consuming lots of sugary drinks and snacks while home from school during lockdown.
“Many are now suffering agonising pain, cannot sleep at night or concentrate at school and end up missing classes – in addition to [needing] emergency dental appointments for antibiotics and extractions,” she added.
Nearly 45,000 children had to be hospitalised for tooth extractions in 2018/19 – equivalent to 177 operations a day.
During the first lockdown, the majority of dental care was stopped for around three months, causing a huge backlog of people waiting. Since then, infection control protocols have meant dentists seeing lower volumes of patients.