Despite solid efforts, the dental education programs in this country have failed to meet their goals. The rate of dental cavities in young children and teenagers has increased significantly over the past ten years. We are not adequately addressing the key issues in the prevention of dental disease. There are five factors that children and their parents must understand in order to prevent or control dental caries.
First, children, as well as parents, need to be taught the importance of the primary or baby teeth. These teeth will generally begin to erupt by age one and are lost gradually between age 5-13. Their primary role is not to help eat or speak. It is to provide a matrix or guide for the growth, development, and function of the muscles and bones of the lower face, as well as providing space and guidance for the eruption of the permanent teeth. It is not possible to develop a beautiful smile without protecting these teeth.
Second, dental disease is a bacterial infection. This infection, known as dental caries, can cause tooth decay or “holes in the teeth.” Significant pain (toothaches) and facial swelling (infection) can result and could become very serious. The family of bacteria that causes dental caries is known as streptococcus mutans or “strept mutans.” These bacteria live in the saliva of almost all people and are passed on to children from their parents by simply kissing their babies or using the same feeding utensils, etc. It is impossible in our society for mothers or other caregivers not to pass this germ to their children.
The third factor involves genetics which helps explain why some children are very prone to tooth decay while others are not. In the United States, 20-25% of our children have 80-85% of the active dental caries we see. In dentally healthy children, their immune system produces antibodies that can keep the strept mutans levels (germs) in the salvia below the threshold. This means that there are not enough germs in the saliva to colonize or build up as destructive plaque on the teeth. With simple flossing and brushing, patients with a significant immune response to their strept mutans tend to get little or no decay. Children without this protection are the ones that are prone to tooth decay. In these “caries susceptible” or “cavity prone” children, the incidence of dental caries will be directly proportional to the number of exposures they receive per day to fermentable carbohydrates (sugar exposures of any kind and in any form).
Fourth, and fortunately for all children, dental disease can be controlled, if not entirely prevented. To accomplish this, the teeth need to be protected by reducing their number of exposures to carbohydrates. This means having only approximately five “sugar exposures” (3 meals, two snacks with “healthy foods”) per day. It also means having the teeth properly cleaned with the help of parents or caregivers. This “help” includes removing plaque from the teeth at least twice a day with a spin brush and using a small amount of fluoride toothpaste. Of significant additional help is the application of a stannous fluoride gel preparation to clean teeth. Preparations such as “Gelkam” can be purchased over-the-counter at any pharmacy. Studies have shown that most children do not have the hand/eye coordination to properly brush and floss their own teeth until 9 ½ years old. Therefore, parents/caregivers must help with effective oral hygiene.
Fifth, regular visits to the dentist are a must. Having your teeth professionally cared for at least every six months is a critical part of overall health. The mouth is the gateway to the body; many harmful diseases can be avoided with proper care of the mouth. Dental prevention appointments are easy and generally cause no discomfort. However, neglecting regular checkups and cleanings can lead to the need for potentially uncomfortable corrective procedures.
The takeaway messages to instill in your children are:
Baby teeth are important and need to be protected.
Everyone has germs in their mouth that can cause tooth decay.
Clean teeth don’t decay.
Snacking with any foods or drinks not marked “sugar-free” can cause cavities.
Teeth should be brushed and flossed with a spin brush and fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day.
Go to the dentist at least every six months for a cleaning and a checkup.
And please remember, just because you might be afraid of the dentist doesn’t mean that your child has to be. With a little dental education today, you can give your child the gift of a great smile they can enjoy for a lifetime.
Dr. Newman is a family dental practitioner in Bellefonte and is accepting new patients. You may contact Dr. Newman at his office: Eagle Valley Family Dentistry, 745 South Eagle Valley Road, Bellefonte PA 16823, (814) 473-5554 or visit www.eaglevalleyfamilydentistry.com