By Dr. Parvathi Pokala
It may surprise you to know that more than 500 million school hours are lost every year from pain caused by dental decay or infections. Children who are in pain from sick teeth are not able to concentrate in class and are unable to learn and keep up with their peers.
Alarmingly, cavities in young children are on the increase after several years of decline. This is due to a number of causes including kids eating more junk foods, changing parenting techniques and busy lifestyles.
It is well known that eating foods high in sugar, drinking juice or soda and poor brushing and flossing can lead to tooth decay and gum disease. However, many people might be surprised to learn that there is much more to cavity formation than this simple formula. Scientists have identified new ways of keeping children and adults cavity free and have recommended products and processes that work in harmony to prevent cavities.
Strange as it may sound, infants “catch” bacteria that cause cavities at a young age. Transmission from parents and caregivers to infants is a vital step in how children are exposed to these bacteria that cause decay. Specifically streptococcus mutans bacteria must be present in plaque for cavities to form. Those of us with strep mutans in our mouths tend to have a higher decay rate. Strep mutans and a diet high in sucrose (sugar) can lead to the development of tooth decay.
As decay does not form without strep mutans, one approach to staying cavity-free is to reduce strep mutans levels. Antibacterial mouthwashes containing chlorhexidine gluconate have been shown to reduce the level of bacteria in the mouth, including lowering the levels of strep mutans, resulting in a lower decay rate. Oral probiotics which replace the “bad” strep mutans with kinder oral bacteria that do not promote cavities are now being developed, and are becoming available.
Daily use of products with xylitol, a natural sugar, results in less sticky plaque which cannot attach itself to the enamel surface and decreases the effects of the acid that these bacteria produce. Xylitol can be found in certain gums, tooth wipes for infants, sprays and mints.
Recaldent, a product developed in Australia, is effective in strengthening enamel.
As diet plays an important part in the development of cavities, parents should focus on giving children foods that reduce the risk of decay. For example, cheese, soy-based foods and leafy green vegetables are good at promoting a low decay rate. Encourage children to avoid juice (even 100 percent natural juice), soda and sticky dried fruit including raisins. Children should drink more water and milk.
Since March of 2011, San Diego has had the benefit of water fluoridation, one of the best public health measures of our time. Fluoride supplements and topical fluoride treatments in the dental office can significantly reduce the incidence of tooth decay.
Dr. Parvathi Pokala is a pediatric dentist in San Diego, with privileges at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and a faculty member in the UC San Diego Department of Pediatrics. She can be reached at (858) 278-8700.