Childhood cavities, also known as childhood tooth decay and childhood caries, are common in children all over the world. There are two main causes of cavities: poor dental hygiene and sugary diets.
Cavities can be incredibly painful, often leading to tooth decay and childhood periodontitis if left untreated. Ensuring that children eat a balanced diet, embarking on a sound home oral care routine, and visiting the dentist biannually, are all crucial factors for both cavity prevention and excellent oral health.
What causes cavities?
Cavities form when children’s teeth are exposed to sugary foods on a regular basis. Sugars and carbohydrates (like the ones found in white bread) collect on and around the teeth after eating. A sticky film (plaque) then forms on the tooth enamel. The oral bacteria within the plaque continually ingest sugar particles and emit acid. Initially, the acid attacks the tooth enamel, weakening it and leaving it vulnerable to tooth decay. If conditions are allowed to worsen, the acid begins to penetrate the tooth enamel and erodes the inner workings of the tooth.
Although primary (baby) teeth are eventually lost, they fulfill several important functions and should be protected. It is essential that children brush and floss twice per day (ideally more), and visit the dentist for biannual cleanings. Sometimes the dentist coats teeth with a sealant and provides fluoride supplements to further bolster the mouth’s defenses.
How will I know if my child has a cavity?
Large cavities can be excruciatingly painful, whereas tiny cavities may not be felt at all. Making matters even trickier, cavities sometimes form between the teeth, making them invisible to the naked eye. Dental X-rays and the dentist’s trained eyes help pinpoint even the tiniest of cavities so they can be treated before they worsen.
Some of the major symptoms of cavities include:
- Heightened sensitivity to cool or warm foods
- Nighttime waking and crying
- Sensitivity to spicy foods
If a child is experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to visit the dentist. Failure to do so will make the problem worse, leave the child in pain, and could possibly jeopardize a tooth that could have been treated.
How can I prevent cavities at home?
Biannual visits with the dentist are only part of the battle against cavities. Here are some helpful guidelines for cavity prevention:
- Analyze the diet – Too many sugary or starchy snacks can expedite cavity formation. Replace sugary snacks like candy with natural foods where possible, and similarly replace soda with water.
- Cut the snacks – Snacking too frequently can unnecessarily expose teeth to sugars. Save the sugar and starch for mealtimes, when the child is producing more saliva, and drinking water. Make sure they consume enough water to cleanse the teeth.
- Lose the sippy cup – Sippy cups are thought to cause “baby bottle tooth decay” when they are used beyond the intended age (approximately twelve months). The small amount of liquid emitted with each sip causes sugary liquid to continually swill around the teeth.
- Avoid stickiness – Sticky foods (like toffee) form plaque quickly, and are extremely difficult to pry off the teeth. Avoid them where possible.
- Rinse the pacifier – Oral bacteria can be transmitted from mother or father to baby. Rinse a dirty pacifier with running water as opposed to sucking on it, to avoid contaminating the baby’s mouth.
- Drinks at bedtime – Sending a child to bed with a bottle or sippy cup is bad news. The milk, formula, juice, or sweetened water basically sits on the teeth all night – attacking enamel and maximizing the risk of cavities. Ensure the child has a last drink before bedtime, and then brush the teeth.
- Don’t sweeten the pacifier – Parents sometimes dip pacifiers in honey to calm a cranky child. Do not be tempted to do this. Use a blanket, toy, or hug to calm the child instead.
- Brush and floss – Parents should brush and floss their child’s teeth twice each day until the child reaches the age of seven years old. Before this time, children struggle to brush every area of the mouth effectively.
- Check on fluoride – When used correctly, fluoride can strengthen tooth enamel and help stave off cavities. Too much or too little fluoride can actually harm the teeth, so ask the dentist for a fluoride assessment.
- Keep to appointments – The child’s first dental visit should be scheduled around his or her first birthday, as per the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) guidelines. Keep to a regular appointment schedule to create healthy smiles!