Tooth decay is the leading cause of chronic illness among children, occurring five times more often than asthma and seven times more often than hay fever.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, more than one-half of U.S. children between the ages of 5 and 9 and more than three-fourths of teenagers have experienced tooth decay.
While tooth decay is widespread, research shows it disproportionately affects children of low socioeconomic status and certain ethnic minorities.
Tooth decay is an important topic in disease prevention and health promotion because so much is known about its prevention.
Good oral health begins during pregnancy with a nutritious diet and supplementation with folic acid (found in prenatal vitamins), which can reduce risk for common birth defects such as cleft lip and palate.
The prevention of tooth decay is especially important among infants and toddlers. The so-called baby teeth begin to erupt between 6 and 9 months of age. As soon as the first tooth erupts, there is a risk for the development of tooth decay.
Infant tooth brushing should begin with a soft toothbrush twice daily using either water or a smear of fluoridated toothpaste. Not only will this protect the teeth at their early stage of development, but it establishes an important health habit that hopefully will last a lifetime.
Interestingly, cariogenic bacteria (those that cause tooth decay) can be transmitted from a mother to an infant beginning with the eruption of the first teeth. Reducing levels of harmful bacteria among infant caretakers can benefit the infant's oral health. For this reason, expectant parents and new parents are encouraged to maintain good oral health habits and seek regular dental care.
Infants should never be put to bed with a bottle nor be fed juice or sugar-sweetened beverages from a bottle. These practices can lead to "baby-bottle tooth decay."
Training infants in the use of a cup can reduce the risk of baby-bottle tooth decay. This training often can begin about 6 months of age with the target of eliminating bottle use around 12-14 months.
The American Dental Association recommends infants visit the dentist for the first time approximately six months after the first tooth erupts or at 1 year of age, whichever comes first.
Maintaining a well-balanced diet that includes fresh produce and whole grains has both nutritional and oral health benefits. In general, consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is preferred over consumption of fruit juices.
Children should be encouraged to brush their teeth at least twice daily. A pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste is suitable for preschool-aged children. Parents should assist their young children in the daily brushing routine.
Your efforts to prevent tooth decay will be rewarded with one of life's greatest gifts - your child's smile.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a
board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Southern Ute Health Center in Ignacio.