Grossing Kids Out With Oral Hygiene

On a gray, rainy afternoon in Kirkland, Barbara Tritz pushed a cart into classroom number 150 at Kamiakin Middle School. Students’ heads swiveled as she made her way between desks and tables to the front of the room; murmurs and puzzling looks followed as the students took in the microscope and an ancient screen atop the cart.

Health teacher Azuma Bearden introduced Tritz as a dental hygienist: “She is going to talk about what can happen if you don’t take care of your teeth,” Bearden said by way of introduction, and let Tritz take the lead.

“What is the first thing we look at when we see somebody?” Tritz asked the class. A few answers were shouted back; their eyes, hair, clothes. “Their smile,” someone said, finally arriving at the correct answer.

“What is the first thing we look at when we see somebody? Their smile.” 

Thirteen years ago, Tritz spoke to her own daughter’s seventh-grade class, back when she first volunteered to speak to Kamiakin’s health classes. The lecture went over so well, Tritz has been coming back twice a year ever since.

“I do it for Kamiakin because I want to give back to my Kirkland community,” Tritz said. But in recent years, Tritz has begun spreading her lessons throughout the Eastside, teaching similar classes in some schools in Bellevue and Redmond as well.

It wasn’t long before Tritz told the students about the microscope she had wheeled into the classroom, which she said she uses chairside daily in her work with Dr. Alireza Panahpour, the Systemic Dentist, in Bellevue. Then she asked volunteers to come forward to provide a plaque sample so the other students could see the live bacteria writhing around on the tiny screen, which elicited gasps and disgusted sounds.

“Last semester I had different kids and they were just … it was pretty funny because they were just like, ‘Oh my gosh, what is that?’ They were really grossed out,” Bearden said. “This semester the kids are actually handling it pretty well, so far.”

After Tritz’s 45-minute presentation, the bell rang and students filed out of the classroom as Bearden reminded them to spit out their xylitol gum samples before they left the room. One student hung back waiting for a hall pass and cast a tentative look at Tritz. “Did that gross you out?” she asked him. He nodded, and Tritz beamed — that was exactly what she had set out to do.

“Otherwise I am just the cleaning lady,” she said. “And I want to be more than just the cleaning lady. I want to help people prevent disease.”


Here are some of Tritz’s tips to raise kids with healthy teeth:

Don’t forget about baby
Bacteria can be spread from adults to children even before an infant sprouts teeth — most often by mothers licking their baby’s pacifier to clean it off. Avoid doing this or sharing utensils with your child. Additionally, keep baby’s gums and emerging teeth clean by rubbing their gums with a damp washcloth.

Tongues have bacteria, too
Most people brush only their teeth, but the tongue is teeming with plaque and bacteria, too. Tritz recommends using a tongue scraper at each brushing.

Try xylitol
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol naturally found in plants. When used in gum, mints, and sprays, it acts as a sugar substitute, but it may also help prevent decay because it inhibits some bacteria growth. Check out Spry gum and Ice Chips candy.

Educate yourself
Bacteria in the mouth can lead to other problems elsewhere in the body. Experts have linked heart disease and diabetes with periodontal disease. “Gum disease and tooth decay don’t hurt until the nerve is infected; some of those teeth don’t hurt at all but they are spewing disease and chronic inflammation throughout the whole body,” Tritz said.

Just say no to piercings
The photos that got the most reaction from the students at Kamiakin were the ones that showed assorted oral piercings, and the effects they had on teeth and gums.

is an assistant editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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