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Just three in ten children with toothache are taken to the dentist

Article By: Melissa McAlees

Thousands of children with tooth pain are being taken by parents to pharmacies and A&E, instead of their dentist, a new study has found.

Credit: Olesia Bilkei/

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London said children’s teeth are being ‘put at risk’ by parents taking them to the wrong place for help to relieve symptoms, when the cause of tooth pain requires investigation.

Lead researcher Dr Vanessa Muirhead, from Queen Mary’s Institute of Dentistry, said: “The fact that only 30 per cent of children with oral pain had seen a dentist before going to a pharmacy highlights a concerning underuse of dental services.

“Children with oral pain need to see a dentist for a definitive diagnosis and to treat any tooth decay. Not treating a decayed tooth can result in more pain, abscesses and possible damage to children’s permanent teeth.

“These children had not only failed to see a dentist before their pharmacy visit; they had seen GPs and a range of other health professionals outside dentistry. This inappropriate and overuse of multiple health services including A&E is costing the NHS a substantial amount of money at a time when reducing waste is a government priority.”

The study of 1,000 pharmacies and nearly 7,000 parents found that most pharmacy visits for children’s pain medications in 2016-2017 were to treat oral pain.

Just 30 per cent had tried visiting a dentist first, and almost as many had sought help from GPs, health visitors, school nurses or Accident & Emergency departments.

Researchers found Saturdays and Sundays were the peak days for parents to visit pharmacies for pain medication for children’s oral pain.

According to National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), only half of children in England visited a dentist in 2016, even though national guidelines recommend dental visits at least every year for children.

Previous research has found that the main cause of planned hospital admissions for children aged five to nine years is to have decayed teeth extracted under general anaesthesia. Meanwhile, a quarter of five-year-olds in England still have tooth decay in their baby teeth and around one fifth of 12-year-olds have tooth decay in their adult teeth.

Dr Muirhead added: “We need to develop integrated systems and referral processes where GPs, community pharmacists and dentists talk to each other to make sure that children with toothache see a dentist as soon as possible for treatment. We also need better training for community pharmacy staff giving parents advice and look at how dentists manage children who have toothache.”

The study has been published in the BMJ Open.

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