Top 5 Oral Habits Your Teen Should Stop Doing Right Now

student chews on pen
Get that pen out of your mouth. You risk ingesting germs, and it's bad for your teeth.

When your children were young, there were a lot of things you tried to keep out of their mouths -- small toys and household objects, balloons and chemical cleaners. The list seemed endless. And, when the time came, even thumbs and pacifiers were phased out as oral favorites. Now that they're teens -- just a few short years from adulthood -- you might not realize that what your kids put in their mouths can still present dangers to their health and safety.

Because oral hazards for teens usually don't take on the threat of an emergency -- such as choking or poisoning -- they're more likely to occur under a parent's radar. However, they can still cause serious damage. Teens' unhealthy oral behavior can lead to a number of problems, including damaged teeth and gums, weight gain, car accidents, cancer and even cardiac arrest. So if your teen is engaging in any of the following oral habits, it's in his or her best interest to stop right away. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that, in some cases, it could even be a matter of life or death.


5: Chewing Non-food Items

While this is arguably the least harmful category on our list of teens' oral habits, it still comes with its fair share of troubles. Teenagers are known for nervous habits like gnawing on pen caps and biting fingernails [source: Leung, et. al]. Sigmund Freud might have said that such behaviors represent a dysfunctional oral fixation, but the most likely causes of chewing non-food items are boredom, anxiety or stress [source: Tanaka, et. al].

While these oral habits are common, they come with a variety of consequences. For starters, many inanimate objects -- and even hands -- can be covered in germs. It's unhygienic to put such things in your mouth, and it can lead to infections. There's also the risk of dental problems. Chewing and biting non-food items can lead to broken teeth and injured gums. If you catch your teen continually putting things in his or her mouth, discourage it.


Believe it or not, a healthy alternative may be chewing gum. Although many schools don't allow kids to chew gum in class, the practice does have some benefits. Sugar-free chewing gum can help alleviate dry mouth and bad breath, and may even help prevent tooth decay [source:]. And, in fact, the act of chewing gum can help reduce stress and improve mood and focus [source: McGonigal].

The next oral habit is a lot more grown up.

4: Unprotected Oral Sex

You probably don't want to consider that your teen is engaging in sexual behavior -- and, well, he or she might not be. However, if that's your hope, you should know that the statistics aren't exactly promising. Even while the number of teens choosing to abstain from sex is growing, around 42 percent of girls and 47 percent of boys ages 15 to 17 are sexually active [source: Jayson]. And researchers have also noticed that oral sex, in particular, is rising in popularity among teenagers -- often in lieu of sexual intercourse [source: Jayson]. So while some parents might be relieved that their sons or daughters are at least not participating in an activity that leads to unwanted pregnancy, oral sex comes with its share of dangers, too.

Perhaps the most menacing risk of unprotected oral sex is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) like human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Although STDs are more likely to be contracted through intercourse, the threat is still there [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. Another health risk of unprotected oral sex is HPV, the human papillomavirus. Often considered an STD, HPV is a virus that can sometimes lead to cancer, and HPV from oral sex has the potential to cause oral cancer [source: Masters].


The sex talk isn't easy, but it's necessary if you want to help protect your child. And since many teens consider oral sex an alternative to intercourse, be sure to cover the spectrum of sexual behavior in your "talk."

Unprotected sex is sometimes the result of the oral habit on the next page.

3: Alcohol and Drug Use

If every teen flick ever made is to be believed, someone in school is having a big party this Friday night -- and there will be lots of beer. While high school life is hardly a John Hughes film, the presence of alcohol is a reality. Due to its accessibility, it's the drug of choice for the teenage set, and it's often consumed in excess. In fact, almost 8 percent of teens admit to binge drinking [source: Dryden-Edwards].

It may sound a bit after-school special of us, but we'd be remiss if we didn't reiterate the potential dangers of teenage drinking, which include alcoholism, binge drinking, alcohol poisoning, experimentation with other drugs, increased likelihood of unprotected or casual sex, impaired judgment, trouble at school, depression, and increased risk of automobile accidents and other harmful situations.


While drinking is the most common oral high teens pursue, it's not the only one. Other substances your child may abuse include prescription medications and easy-to-get illegal drugs like marijuana, ecstasy and meth. Many of the dangers of drinking -- like addiction and impaired judgment -- also apply to drug abuse. However, some of these substances can also cause drug interaction, change in appearance, anxiety, cardiac and circulatory disruptions, suicide and coma. So if you suspect drugs or alcohol are one of your child's oral habits, now is the time to intervene.

The following oral habit may not be immediately life-threatening; but it has the potential to create long-term health problems.

2: Eating and Drinking Sweets

A candy bar might not lead to a car wreck or an overdose, but if eaten often enough, it can cause long-term damage to your teen's health. The least of your worries with sweets are tooth damage and decay. Sodas, in particular, are a threat to oral health because not only are they packed with sugar, they're also very acidic -- a quality that can corrode tooth enamel. Sugar-containing hard candies and mints are also harmful to teeth because of the amount of time they stay in the mouth.

Sweets tend to go easier on the choppers when eaten with a meal rather than alone. Researchers think this is because the increased saliva helps wash away the sugar. Because people produce the least amount of saliva during sleep, before bed is the worst time of day for teens to eat sugary snacks [source: Goss].


Of course, the biggest health threat of sweets is obesity. Sugary foods and drinks usually aren't the sole culprits of weight gain; a sedentary lifestyle and a high-fat, high-calorie diet tend to combine to cause the problem. However, a teen who cuts back on sweets can help prevent obesity and the related problems it creates, including Type 2 diabetes, back pain, gallstones, sleep disorders and increased risk of cardiovascular disease [source: American Academy of Pediatrics].

You can help your teen improve his or her nutrition by keeping your house stocked with healthy snacks.

Keep reading for the final oral habit your teen needs to end right away.

1: Smoking and Chewing Tobacco

Teenagers of the 1950s had the oh-so-cool screen images of a cigarette-puffing James Dean to emulate. But these days, portrayals of teen smoking (even adult smoking) have been wiped from pop culture mediums. The anti-smoking campaigns of the past several decades have helped curb the glamorization of the habit, and cigarette use among teens dropped drastically as the 21st century began [source: Hendrick]. Despite those positive trends, nearly 20 percent of today's high school students smoke [source: Hendrick]. In addition, smokeless tobacco use -- dip, snuff and chewing tobacco -- is on the rise among teens [source: Smith].

At this point, the dangers of tobacco are well known. In case you need a refresher, however, be aware that it puts your teen at risk for lung cancer, oral cancer, exacerbated asthma attacks and chronic bronchitis. And as your son or daughter ages, smoking will increase his or her odds of developing any number of cardiovascular diseases and other chronic illnesses.


The threat of long-term health problems may not be enough to motivate teens to stop smoking. So in addition, you can explain to your son or daughter some of the more superficial effects it has. For instance, you might remind them that most teens won't date smokers [source: American Academy of Pediatrics]. If your teenager wants to quit but is having trouble, a great resource is the U.S. Government's Teen Smokefree TxT, which can text smoking cessation support to a teen's cell phone.

Ready to have that talk with your teen? Look for other great resources on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Absolutely Smiles. "Oral Hygiene for Teens and Kids." (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Teens: Alcohol and Other Drugs." March 2011 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. "Obesity's Impact on Teen Health." May 26, 2011 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • American Academy of Pediatrics. "Teens and Smoking." Aug. 16, 2010 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • American Dental Hygienists Association. "Want some life saving advice? Ask Your Dental Hygienist about Proper Oral Health Care for Adolescents" Sept. 5, 2007 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • American Lung Association. "General Smoking Facts." June 2011 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Oral Sex and HIV Risk." June 3, 2009 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • Dental Health Magazine. "Benefit of Chewing Gum on Teeth Health." Feb. 9, 2008 (Aug. 20, 2011)
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  • Jayson, Sharon. "Sex Study: More Teens, Young Adults Are Virgins." USA Today." March 3, 2011 (Aug. 20, 2011)
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  • Masters, Coco. "Oral Sex Can Add to HPV Cancer Risk." Time. May 11, 2007 (Aug. 20, 2011),8599,1619814,00.html
  • McCoy, Krisha. "10 Bad Habits that Can Harm Your Teeth." Everyday Health. July 29, 2011 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • McGonigal, Kelly. "The Superpowers of Candy." Psychology Today. Oct. 25, 2010 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • MedlinePlus. "Smoking and Youth." Aug. 5, 2011 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • Mesa, Ruben A. "Craving and Chewing Ice: A Sign of Anemia?" Mayo Clinic. Feb. 12, 2010 (Aug. 20, 2011)
  • Smith, Donna. "Smokeless Tobacco Use Rising Among Teens." Reuters. April 14, 2010 (Aug. 20, 2011)
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