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Prevent, Detect and Treat: Children’s Tooth Decay

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Just because baby teeth eventually fall out doesn't mean you should ignore children’s tooth decay. Cavities not only influence the overall health and wellbeing of your child, they can negatively affect the development of adult teeth.

Tooth decay fact: A National Child Oral Health study found that untreated children’s tooth decay affects 27% of Australian children aged 5-7.

Instances of children's tooth decay remain high despite increased awareness and education around children’s oral care and hygiene. In a Cancer Council Victoria press release, President of the Australian Dental Association, Dr Hugo Sachs, says that consumption of sugary drinks is mostly to blame: “young Australians are among the biggest consumers of sugary drinks, which are a leading contributor to tooth decay.”

toddler with advanced children's tooth decay in baby teeth
Tooth decay in a toddler: in its advanced stage, the bacteria has destroyed the enamel tooth layer and spread to the softer inner part of the tooth called the dentine. If the tooth loses too much structure removal may be the only option

The good news? Cavities don't form overnight without warning. There's plenty that parents can do to proactively manage children's tooth decay— starting with knowing the causes.

The cause of children's tooth decay

Tooth decay is driven by the bacteria in plaque, which creates a build-up of acids on the surface of the tooth. The bacteria in plaque thrives on sugary foods, particularly those containing a high pH level: dried fruit, fizzy drinks, processed food, citrus and sweets are among the worst offenders. 

If the acid sits on the tooth long enough, tooth enamel breaks down and cavities form. Over time, little ‘nooks’  will begin to form in your child’s teeth, allowing bacteria to settle even further. If left untreated, the ‘nooks’ will form into cavities and can become large enough to trap food particles, which only accelerates the rate of tooth decay. 

Tooth decay fact: your child has around 20 minutes from their first bite of a sugary snack before bacteria starts to create acid. 

If the cavity reaches the second layer of the tooth, nerves become exposed. Aside from attacking and dissolving your little one’s teeth, the acids now start to trigger a painful reaction—no fun for anyone. 

Early tooth decay is hard to spot, especially on back teeth. It’s marked by white spots indicating an enamel lesion [number 1]. Over time the decay creates small holes (cavities) in the top enamel layer that trap food particles [number 2]. Left untreated the rot spreads to the dentine layer of the tooth [number 3]. In its advanced stages, the decay spreads to the soft, sensitive centre of the tooth – the pulp [number 4]. Eventually, a painful abscess develops that may require removing the tooth [number 5].

How to prevent tooth decay

Curbing children’s tooth decay before it gets to its final, painful stage begins with good oral care at home. Put simply: if plaque sits unchecked on the surface of your kid’s teeth, it rapidly increases the rate of developing cavities. 

Diet also plays a huge role. Sweet acidic foods get turned into plaque very quickly. If your kid’s diet consists of mostly carb-rich foods, processed snacks, sugars and fizzy drinks, you're giving tooth decay a head-start. 

As any parent knows, it’s almost impossible to eliminate sweet foods entirely (bribes or birthday parties, anyone?) so—realistically—your best plan of attack is to be proactive with brushing. Make sure your child brushes their teeth thoroughly at least every morning and night, and especially after special treats. 

A quick word on sugar-free: it’s easy to assume that sugar-free versions are fair game, however all fizzy drinks and most sugar-free treats are acidic enough to temporarily weaken enamel and allow bacteria to thrive.

Tooth decay fact: community water fluoridation in Australia has resulted in a 50% reduction in dental cavities in comparison to children's parents.

Tooth decay prevention to-dos

  • Teach good oral hygiene as soon as children get their first teeth
  • Brush after every meal: half of all Australians brush their teeth at least twice per day. When possible, brush your child’s teeth after lunch (and treats), too
  • Try a finger toothbrush after snacks—they're fun, easy to use, and fast
  • Offer veggie-based snack alternatives first 
  • Floss early: it can take a while to get the hang of it, but encouraging your child join in your flossing routine will pave the way for good habits later on
  • Stick to fluoride-based toothpaste 
  • Non-alcoholic mouthwash is safe for adolescents and will help guard against gum disease

How to detect children’s tooth decay

Tooth decay happens gradually and subtly and can be tricky for busy parents to pick up on. 

Nevertheless, early identification of your child’s tooth decay is key to avoiding long-term consequences. Outside of regular dental checkups, be on the lookout for pain, pressure and sensitivity.

Complaints of pain can be tricky to decipher in small children. Instead, look for repeating patterns of pain, pressure or sensitivity. A pattern can tell you all the difference between a cavity and a one-off, unrelated problem. 

If pain only happens when your little one is chewing, or in the presence of hot/cold temperatures, it could very well be a cavity. Cavities that have had time to develop will be visible as dark areas in crevices—it’s worth checking your child’s teeth a part of their regular tooth brushing routine. 

Tooth decay fact: certain medical treatments will increase the chances of tooth decay. Children are less likely to be included in this list, but it's worth knowing. 

How to treat children’s tooth decay

Once a cavity forms, brushing can no longer slow down the damage caused by bacteria. The bacteria has had the opportunity to ‘sit’ in the cavity and create even more decay. 

Unfortunately, there's no way to reverse the damage of children’s tooth decay at home. At this stage, it’s time to take your child in to see the dentist, who will assess the decay and talk you through treatment options. 

A filling is the most common and effective treatment for a cavity, typically lasting around 10 years. However, a filling isn’t a permanent defence from future cavities and without the proper preventative care at home, new cavities can form around the edges of a filling.

If a cavity reaches the nerve at the dentin below the enamel, the pain can become excruciating. In this case, the most likely treatment option will be a root canal, which will protect the formation of adult teeth below and prevent the spread of infection.

It's difficult to combat children's tooth decay without the guidance of a professional, and even those with the best dental hygiene can get cavities. It's not always possible to rely only on children's testimony, or looking with the naked eye. 

To fully prevent, detect and treat children's tooth decay, kids need great care at home and routine checkups at the dentist. 

We believe in getting kids comfortable with the dentist at an early age. Our family-friendly practice ensures your child's first dental visit helps them feel as comfortable as possible. Please contact us to book your appointment today.

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