The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

World Health Organization cites ‘alarming’ dental statistics

Hundreds of people in need of dental care are treated at the Remote Area Medical mobile clinic at the Tennessee Valley Fairgrounds in Knoxville, Tenn., in 2019. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

More than 1 in 4 U.S. adults — 26 percent — have untreated dental cavities, according to oral health data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, nearly half (46 percent) of adults 30 and older have signs of gum disease, and 13 percent of youths ages 5 to 19 have untreated tooth decay.

Worldwide, untreated cavities (also called caries) are the most common oral health issue, affecting more than 2 billion people, and severe gum disease affects about 1 billion people, according to a new report on oral health from the World Health Organization. Calling the global situation “alarming,” WHO officials say nearly half of the world’s population has untreated oral diseases, and that these illnesses affect more people worldwide than mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancers combined.

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The WHO argues that oral health care should be part of universal health coverage, “either free of charge or at a price that people can afford,” adding that too many people do not have access to needed dental care. Dental health experts generally recommend dental visits once or twice a year for a routine examination and cleaning, noting that treatment for dental problems found early is usually simpler and more affordable.

Cavities generally stem from plaque that builds up on teeth that are not well cleaned, and it can become hardened (known as tartar) and irritate the gums, leading to gum disease (gingivitis). To prevent dental problems, dentists’ recommendations include brushing for two minutes twice a day with a soft-bristled toothbrush, using fluoride toothpaste, replacing toothbrushes at least every three or four months and using floss to clean between the teeth at least once a day.

This article is part of The Post’s “Big Number” series, which takes a brief look at the statistical aspect of health issues. Additional information and relevant research are available through the hyperlinks.