By Dr. Linda Vidone

Fall sports season is here and student athletes are heading to the fields to compete on their school or community's football, soccer or field hockey team. Keeping the season fun means playing safe, which includes protecting your child's teeth. More than 5 million teeth are knocked out each year through sports injury, accident or play. Here are some precautions to take this sports season -- and always -- when it comes to oral health:

Have your student athlete use a mouth guard for contact sports.

According to a survey of American children's oral health conducted on behalf of the Delta Dental Plan Association, one thing most student athletes won't show up to the field with is a mouth guard. Just as helmets, shoulder pads, and kneepads are worn to protect against sports-related injuries, mouth guards are an equally important piece of protective gear.

Unfortunately, one in four Massachusetts teens will be seen annually in the emergency department or admitted to the hospital for a sports-related injury. Parents need to encourage their young athletes to get in the habit of wearing mouth guards whenever they participate in sports, whether it's for a simple practice or a championship game.

In Massachusetts, mouth guards are currently required in seven scholastic sports -- football, field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, wrestling and basketball.


However, the Massachusetts Dental Society recommends that participants wear mouth guards in all sports in which injury to the mouth may occur, including baseball, volleyball, and other contact sports.

You can purchase a 'boil and bite' mouth guard at your local drugstore or athletic supply store. Be sure the mouth guard is fitting properly and comfortable otherwise your dentist can custom fit your athlete with one. Talk to your dentist about the kinds of mouth guards available and which will work best for your athlete.

Limit your athlete's intake of sports drinks.

Many believe sports drinks help replace electrolytes during vigorous exercise and sports drinks are consumed in great quantities by young athletes. However, you should know that these drinks are sugary and acidic so these seemingly harmless liquids can actually wreak havoc on teeth.

The combination of acidic components, sugars, and additives in sports drinks combine to erode the tooth's surface, weakening the enamel that protects teeth from bacteria. The enamel erosion ultimately makes teeth more susceptible to bacteria and that can lead to hypersensitivity, staining, and tooth decay.

With the exception of the highest performing athletes who need to replenish minerals from intensive workouts, water is always the best option for staying hydrated on and off the field. If these facts haven't convinced your child to avoid the casual consumption of sports drinks, here are a few tips:

-- Moderate consumption of sports drinks. - Limit consumption of sports drinks to short periods of time. It is better to drink an 8oz bottle of sports drink in one sitting than to slowly sip it over the course of a game. That means less time for the sugars and acids to erode enamel. Rinsing the mouth with water after drinking a sport drink can clear away remaining acids and sugars.

-- Discourage swishing sports drinks around the mouth. - This bad habit only increases the risk of erosion. Ideally, your athlete should use a straw so teeth aren't immersed in or in direct contact with the sugars and acids in the beverage.

-- Don't have your student athlete brush his/her teeth immediately after finishing a sports drink. Consumption of acidic drinks causes tooth enamel to soften, making teeth more susceptible to more wear from the abrasives in toothpaste. Wait 45 minutes to an hour before brushing. In that time, saliva will start its work to re-mineralize the tooth structure and neutralize the damage. Saliva won't remove the sugar residue, so you still have to brush.

Make regular dental care a part of your child's routine. 

Most children should see their dentist for a regular cleaning and check up every six months. Tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease, five times more common than asthma. It's also preventable with proper care. Your dentist can identify early signs of erosion, pinpoint the causes, and advise you on how to prevent further damage and more serious problems from occurring.

Dr. Linda Vidone is the Dental Director of Delta Dental of Massachusetts, the largest provider of group dental benefits in Massachusetts. The company is committed to improving the oral health of its members and of the communities it serves through dental benefits, research, and philanthropy. Headquartered in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Delta Dental cov