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Like many people, I didn’t have great teeth as a child. In fact I had lots of cavities and we went to the dentist regularly. But I was determined that it would be different for my kids. And it has been much better for them. So I am going to tell you what I did, so you can too. The top 5 things you can do that will absolutely work to help your kids have great teeth are…
You know how a mystery movie works? You do not reveal the end too soon so lets take a moment and understand the challenges we face. You see dental decay (and gum disease) are actually infections due to the germs in the mouth, just as much as a strep throat is an infection. In fact, dental disease, cavities and gum disease are the most common aliments that we have. So this will take a little planning to help you kids have great teeth, but the rewards are worth it, so read on. It really is not that hard.
Let’s face it. The gene pool is hard to beat. It’s kind of like, if you want to be tall, pick tall parents. I did not do that either, by the way. It is true that some people have stronger teeth than others. Some people need to study more in school. Some people need to sleep more at night. There are differences and if you inherited stronger teeth, be grateful, but if you do not have stronger teeth, all is not lost. You still have 4 more steps.
Despite the controversy, fluoride is the 13th most common element on the planet. Fluoridated water is arguably the most effective public health initiative of all time. For just pennies fluoride can be added to the water we drink to the ideal level. That level is 1 part fluoride per million parts of water. By the way, that is the level naturally found in the ocean. What happens next is that when children with developing teeth drink at least two cups of fluoridated water every day, the fluoride literally becomes a part of the developing teeth. As a result, the teeth containing fluoride crystals are stronger and more resistant to acid and cavities. It is the next best thing to picking parents who have great teeth. That does not mean that your teeth are “bullet proof” and you can eat all the junk food you want, or skip dental check ups, but it makes a big difference. So what is the ideal way to use fluoride? First make sure that you are on fluoridated water. City water in Fairfield County is fluoridated to optimal levels. If you have city water, just have your kids drink 2 cups of water or reconstituted fruit juice per day. If you are on well water or drink bottled water, you have to get it tested to see if it has fluoride in it. Usually it does not. In that case you will need to ask your dentist or pediatrician for a prescription for a fluoride supplement for your children to take daily until all of their adult teeth are in. That is until at least 12 years of age, not counting wisdom teeth. Once they get to age 12 however, that does not mean that you cannot continue to get the benefits of fluoride. It is true that adults do not benefit from fluoridated water because it is so weak. At that point you switch over to adult fluoride, also by prescription from the dentist, and use a brush-on produce like Prevident of Take Home Fluoride forever. That way you are giving the surface of your teeth a fluoride treatment every day. That makes the outside of your teeth stronger and more decay resistant. As far as the safety of fluoride is concerned, there are places in the USA in the south west where fluoride naturally occurs in the water at 3-7 part per million. That’s as much as seven times the recommended amount and has been that way to 50 to 100 thousand years. And there is no evidence that people in these areas have any health issues from it.
Question: What will cause more cavities, eating a big ice cream Sunday, or occasionally snacking on a hand full of M & M candies?
When you eat sugar, the germs in your mouth eat the sugar and turn the sugar into acid, which actually causes the teeth to decay. Some people have more bacteria in their mouth. Some people have stronger teeth. Some people have grown up on fluoride. But all things being equal, more sugar = more decay.
The frequency of eating sugar is much more important than the total amount eaten in so far as decay is concerned. Think about it this way. If you go to an all you can eat buffet, regardless of how much food there is, at some point you will get full and can stop eating. It is the same with the germs in your mouth. If you start to eat sugary foods, the bacteria can take some of that food and turn the sugar into acids, but after a few minutes, they are “full” and cannot eat any more sugar. Then they take about 30 minutes to digest the sugar and make acids, so after the first couple of bites, the germs will be as full as the person who has had a couple of helpings at the buffet. More frequent sugar snacks, even if it is less total sugar, cause more decay. Go for the occasional sugary desert, but skip the frequent snack with sugar. And especially be aware of the hidden sugars in many processed foods that the manufacturers put it.
I know you hate that I said that but I am a dentist so what can I tell you. Brushing is great, but the brush does not get in between the teeth and that is where those germs buildup the plaque. Remember that these germs are the ones that eat the sugar and make acids that cause the cavities. Telling your kids to brush without flossing is about as effective as washing just their right hand, but not their left. You simply need to do it all. The trick is for parent of small children to floss their kid’s teeth until they are old enough to do it for them selves. Heck we do a lot of less pleasant things for our kids when they are small. And parents, this is another opportunity for the kids to learn from you. Make it a daily routine and floss your own teeth and let the kids see you do that. Make it as natural as all the other hygiene things that are part of your routine every day.
This is important for two reasons. First if you go regularly to a preventive oriented dentist they will give you coaching and motivation to do these thing and make sure that you are on optimal fluoride. If you are not flossing they will give you gentle encouragement and get you back on track. And they can help clean in between the teeth in those spots that are hard to get to. In addition they will be able to monitor your general progress. Let’s face it, none of us are perfect and having a coach is critical in life. When movie starts get an Oscar, they make a speech and thank their directors. Same for sports heroes who thank their coaches. Well, we need a dental health coach as well and your preventive oriented dentist and hygienist fit that bill to a T. The second reason that going for regular check ups is so important is that cavities start slowly and as a tiny little dot and then get bigger and bigger. If you catch them small, then it is like any other disease. It is easier and faster to treat and does not get out of control. If you skip check ups and wait, the little cavities grow into much bigger cavities and then the teeth cannot be fixed with just fillings. At that point they might need root canals and crowns. Another myth we need to bust now is that once a tooth is filled, it is fixed forever. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, teeth with fillings are more likely to get decay than teeth that never had a cavity. Everything wears out over time. You shoes wear out, your tires wear out and your fillings, which you use by eating, drinking hot and cold things , chewing, and often grinding or clenching your teeth will eventually start to corrode and leak. And when they do , you will start to get another cavity under the first filling. These rarely hurt and unless you have a dentist to check, you will not find out about them until you have a huge cavity and are in the root canal category. Regular dental x-rays are another must. The x-ray can see in between places that looking will miss. The newest modern digital electronic x-rays are great too because they use as much as 50-75% less radiation and you can see them instantly.
Let’s use these two diagrams as a summary. Parents can cut them out and hang them on the family bulletin board so everyone understands the healthy teeth program.
The left one says that if you have germs in plaque, and you eat too much sugar and have teeth that are not strong enough, you will get decay. The right one says that if you can control the plaque by brushing, flossing and regular visits to the dentist, eat sugar less frequently and harden your teeth by optimal fluoride, you will be able to prevent many cavities. And that is how you win the dental game.