DEAR MAYO CLINIC: Is it true that some children are more susceptible to getting cavities than others? My 11-year-old has never had a cavity, but my 6-year-old already has needed four fillings. What's the best way to prevent cavities in kids? At what age should they start flossing?
Some people may be more prone to tooth decay than others, even within the same family. To give your children the best protection against cavities, teach them the importance of dental health by showing them how to care for their teeth. That includes daily flossing from a very young age. It's important for parents to have good oral hygiene, too. Make sure you and your children see a dentist regularly.
Tooth decay happens when areas in the hard surface of your teeth become damaged and develop holes, or cavities. Left untreated, the holes get bigger and can eventually lead to pain, infection and tooth loss. A combination of factors can trigger tooth decay, including bacteria in the mouth, teeth not being cleaned well, and eating or drinking lots of sugary foods and beverages.
If parents or other caregivers don't have good dental habits, they may have large amounts of bacteria in their mouths. Those bacteria can be transferred to young children, increasing the risk of decay. Special attention should be taken to avoid sharing toothbrushes, drinking glasses and other items that might transmit bacteria.
Brushing teeth at least twice a day -- and ideally after every meal -- is still one of the best ways to prevent tooth decay. Using a mechanical toothbrush with a rotating head is a good choice. They do a much better job of cleaning teeth than manual toothbrushes. Some include a two-minute timer, so it stays on for the amount of time dentists recommend teeth be brushed. That makes it easier for kids to get a thorough cleaning each time they brush.
Make sure the toothpaste your family uses contains fluoride. Research has shown that fluoride is effective in reducing cavities. Many cities now add fluoride to drinking water and that helps prevent tooth decay, too. If your city has fluoridated water, give your children tap water to drink rather than bottled water to get the benefits of the fluoride. Many dentists give children fluoride treatments during their dental visits, as well. For people who seem particularly susceptible to cavities, a dentist also may recommend a daily fluoride rinse.
Ask your dentist about applying dental sealants to your children's teeth. A sealant is a protective coating applied to the chewing surface of back teeth, sealing off grooves that tend to collect food and protecting tooth enamel. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends sealants for all school-age children.
Your children should start flossing as soon as possible. Flossing is the most effective way to remove food and plaque from between teeth. Encourage them to floss at least once or twice a day for the best cavity protection. Flossing is particularly important for children between the teeth in the back of their mouths, as children tend not to brush as well in those areas as they do in the front.
Lowering your children's intake of snacks and beverages that contain sugar also can help prevent tooth decay. Sugar is linked to tooth decay because if sugar is not cleaned off teeth well, bacteria in your mouth feed on it, producing acids. In time, acid wears away the teeth's hard outer layer of enamel and the process of decay begins. Drinks with high sugar content, such as fortified fruit juices and carbonated beverages, can trigger tooth decay, especially when sipped throughout the day.
Finally, take your children to see a dentist on a regular basis. Most children need dental checkups twice a year, although some may require them more often. Try to choose one dentist and stay with him or her as your children grow. Having a dentist who knows your children's dental history and is familiar with any special needs they have can makes it easier to prevent and catch problems quickly. -- Thomas Salinas, D.D.S., Dental Specialties, Mayo Clinic, Rochester.