Tooth decay is one of the most common chronic conditions of childhood in the United States. Untreated tooth decay can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing, and learning.
• About one in five children aged 5 to 11 years (20 percent) have at least one untreated decayed tooth.
• One in seven adolescents aged 12 to 19 years (13 percent) have at least one untreated decayed tooth.
• The percentage of children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 years with untreated tooth decay is twice as high for those from low-income families (25 percent) compared with children from higher-income households (11 percent).
The good news is that tooth decay is preventable. Fluoride varnish, a high concentration fluoride coating that is painted on teeth, can prevent about one-third (33 percent) of decay in the primary (baby) teeth. Children living in communities with fluoridated tap water have fewer decayed teeth than children who live in areas where their tap water is not fluoridated. Similarly, children who brush daily with fluoride toothpaste will have less tooth decay.
Applying dental sealants to the chewing surfaces of the back teeth is another way to prevent tooth decay. Studies in children show that sealants reduce decay in the permanent molars by 81 percent for 2 years after they are placed on the tooth and continue to be effective for 4 years after placement.
WHAT CAREGIVERS CAN DO
Here are some ways to protect your child’s teeth with fluoride.
• Use fluoride toothpaste. If your child is younger than age 6, watch your child brush her teeth. Make sure your child only uses a pea-sized amount of toothpaste and always spits it out rather than swallows it. If your child is younger than age two, do not use fluoride toothpaste unless your doctor or dentist tells you to.
• Talk to your pediatrician, family doctor, nurse, or dentist about putting fluoride varnish on your child’s teeth as soon as the first tooth appears in the mouth.
• If your drinking water is not fluoridated, ask your dentist, family doctor, or pediatrician if your child needs oral fluoride supplements.
Other tips include:
• Talk to your child’s dentist about dental sealants. Sealants protect teeth from decay.
• Have your child visit a dentist for a first checkup by age 1, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
ABOUT DENTAL SEALANTS
What are dental sealants? Dental sealants are thin plastic coatings that are applied to the grooves on the chewing surfaces of the back teeth to protect them from tooth decay. Most tooth decay in children and teens occurs on these surfaces. Sealants protect the chewing surfaces from tooth decay by keeping germs and food particles out of these grooves.
Which teeth are suitable for sealants? Permanent molars are the most likely to benefit from sealants. The first molars usually come into the mouth when a child is about 6 years old. Second molars appear at about age 12. It is best if the sealant is applied soon after the teeth have erupted before they have a chance to decay.
How are sealants applied? Applying sealants does not require drilling or removing tooth structure. The process is short and easy. After the tooth is cleaned, a special gel is placed on the chewing surface for a few seconds. The tooth is then washed off and dried. Then, the sealant is painted on the tooth. The dentist or dental hygienist also may shine a light on the tooth to help harden the sealant. It takes about a minute for the sealant to form a protective shield.
Are sealants visible? Sealants can only be seen up close. Sealants can be clear, white, or slightly tinted, and usually are not seen when a child talks or smiles.
Will sealants make teeth feel different? As with anything new that is placed in the mouth, a child may feel the sealant with the tongue. Sealants, however, are very thin and only fill the pits and grooves of molar teeth.
How long will sealants last? A sealant can last for as long as 5 to 10 years. Sealants should be checked at your regular dental appointment and can be reapplied if they are no longer in place.
Will sealants replace fluoride for cavity protection? No. Fluorides, such as those used in toothpaste, mouth rinse, and community water supplies, also help to prevent decay, but in a different way. Sealants keep germs and food particles out of the grooves by covering them with a safe plastic coating. Sealants and fluorides work together to prevent tooth decay.
How do sealants fit into a preventive dentistry program? Sealants are one part of a child’s total preventive dental care. A complete preventive dental program also includes fluoride, twice-daily brushing, wise food choices, and regular dental care.
SIMPLE STEPS FOR SMILES
1. Start cleaning teeth early. As soon as the first tooth appears, begin cleaning by wiping with a clean, damp cloth every day. When more teeth come in, switch to a small, soft toothbrush. Begin using toothpaste with fluoride when the child is two years old. Use toothpaste with fluoride earlier if your child’s doctor or dentist recommends it.
2. Use the right amount of fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride is important for fighting cavities. But if children younger than 6 years old swallow too much fluoride, their permanent teeth may have white spots. To keep this from happening, use only a small amount of toothpaste (about the size of a pea). Teach your child to spit out the toothpaste and to rinse well after brushing.
3. Supervise brushing. Brush your child’s teeth twice a day until your child has the skill to handle the toothbrush alone. Then continue to closely watch brushing to make sure the child is doing a thorough job and using only a small amount of toothpaste.
4. Talk to your child’s doctor or dentist. Check with the doctor or dentist about your child’s specific fluoride needs. After age 2, most children get the right amount of fluoride to help prevent cavities if they drink water that contains fluoride and brush their teeth with a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste twice a day.
Parents of children older than 6 months should ask about the need for a fluoride supplement if drinking water does not have enough fluoride. Do not let a child younger than 6 years old use a fluoride mouth rinse unless the child’s doctor or dentist recommends it.
Early care for your children’s teeth protects their smile and their health.