Tooth Decay In Children – Causes, Signs, Treatment And Prevention

Written by K. Masthoff • 
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Perhaps the most joyous moment of your life (after holding your baby for the first time in your arms) is watching your little angel smile with his single pearly white shining in all its glory. But, the glitter of that little pearl can fade rather quickly if tooth decay begins to set.

Your little critter will get his first milk tooth during infancy. The process begins when your kid reaches the ripe old age of six months and ends when he is about three years old. When your kiddo starts teething, it may result in mild discomfort and possibly fever. However, the discomfort is nothing compared to dental caries or tooth decay that could come up eventually. MomJunction has put together some relevant information about tooth decay in children. Read on.

Importance Of Milk Dentition:

You may think milk teeth are, well, just teeth that will fall off. So why bother keeping them clean? On the contrary, your kid’s milk dentition is important for his development. It helps with his speech, ability to eat, and facial appearance. Also, milk teeth establish space for adult teeth in the mouth. They allow the permanent teeth to grow and develop healthily and normally. If a child experiences loss of milk teeth early, permanent ones end up overcrowding the mouth, and you would have to spend quite a bit of money to get orthodontic treatment for your kid.

Child Tooth Decay:

When you figure your child has a cavity, you will blame yourself. You may think you didn’t get your child to brush and floss his teeth properly. Yes, this is true to a degree, but did you know the germs causing tooth decay spread from your mouth to your kid’s mouth? When you share spoons and glass with your child, you transfer germs from your mouth to your child’s, thus contributing to tooth decay in them.

Today, tooth decay in children is more common than any chronic illness, such as asthma and diabetes. Research shows that nearly four million preschoolers in the US have cavities, and this is an increase of over 600,000 million in the last 10 years [1].

“Children now have much more sugar in their diets at an early age,” explains Paul Casamassimo, D.D.S., a professor of pediatric dentistry at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health in Columbus. He adds that more people are drinking bottled water, which does not have fluoride content, and this also is contributing to the problem of rising tooth decay in kids.

So, what exactly is tooth decay? It is a disease (yes, a disease) where acids produced by bacteria in the mouth damage the enamel of the teeth [2]. These bacteria reside in dental plaque. The acid causes the tooth enamel and the underlying dentin to soft, leading to progressive damage, and the result is a hole or a cavity in the tooth.

[ Read: Facts And information About Teeth For Kids ]

Hard-To-Digest Facts About Tooth Decay In Children:

If your little critter gets cavities, he will suffer from toothache, discomfort, be unable to sleep and may even reduce his food intake because of the pain. But, tooth decay has more profound effects that go beyond the trauma of having to sit in the dentist’s chair! It will inhibit your kiddo’s cognitive and social development and also adversely affect his self-esteem. And, if this is not enough, just check out these facts:

  • Dental caries (tooth decay) among kids is five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever.
  • If you don’t treat your little angel’s tooth decay, it can lead to bacterial infection, undernourishment, emergency surgery and possibly death.
  • Pain and subsequent infection by untreated tooth decay can result in learning, speaking, and eating problems.
  • Research shows dental caries are connected to diabetes, heart disease, dementia, stroke, and pneumonia. [3]

Evidence shows that one in 10 children experiences dental caries even before they reach the age of two, and the most common reason for this decay is letting your little one drink milk or sweetened liquid from a bottle while sleeping at night [4]. When you let your child do this, the milk or liquid sticks to the teeth all night long, allowing the bacteria proliferate and wreak havoc on the teeth.

Causes Of Tooth Decay In Children:

There are several reasons for tooth decay in children. They include:

1. Food:

While those lollipops your kid sucks have a role to play in tooth decay, they aren’t the sole contributors. In fact, everything your child eats can lead to tooth decay. Children who graze frequently are more prone to tooth decay than kids who don’t.

2. Beverages:

Juices, sports drinks, soft drinks, and even milk can result in cavities. Hence, if your child drinks them frequently, his teeth will get coated by these drinks. As a result, acid-producing bacteria will settle down in the grooves and pits of his teeth, leading to cavities.

3. Medical Conditions:

Some medical conditions can increase the risk of cavities. For instance, if your angel suffers from chronic allergies, he may resort to mouth breathing, which reduces the flow of saliva. When saliva flow decreases, it increases the chances of cavities. Also, inhalers for asthma can also cause tooth decay. This decay is due to the medication.

Process Of Tooth Decay:

Every single day, there is a war taking place inside your kid’s mouth. On one side are dental plaque, food and drinks, and on the other your little one’s saliva, and fluoride from the toothpaste and water.

Dental plaque is the sticky film on the teeth. This film is nothing but bacteria that use the food and drinks that your child eats to produce acids. The acids, in turn, eat away the enamel, the outer surface of the tooth.

The saliva contains minerals that help to repair the damaged enamel along with fluoride. This process is called remineralization. The loss and regaining of minerals occurs every day and all day long. However, when the acid attacks are more frequent than the minerals, it causes a white spot to form on the tooth. This is the first sign of tooth decay. At this stage, you can stem the decay and reverse the problem [5]. However, if you don’t reverse the decay at this stage, it will progress since the enamel loses more minerals. With time, the enamel gets destroyed and a hole begins to form. This hole is permanent, and only a dentist can fix it. If you don’t repair the hole, the decay can affect the tooth pulp, which leads to further complications.

[ Read: Bad Breath In Children ]

Signs Of Tooth Decay In Children:

Every kid will manifest different signs of tooth decay. As a parent, you will know there is something wrong that warrants a visit to the dentist. Some of the common signs of decay are:

  • Changes in the tooth color – the tooth may have a black spot on it
  • Pain while eating or biting into something
  • Bad breath

Preventing Tooth Decay In Children:

Prevention of dental decay begins from infancy. You cannot expect your little one to be cavity-free if you don’t take steps from the very beginning.

1. Steps For Infants:

  • Take a wet gauze and wipe your child’s gums after each feed
  • Your kid should have his first dental checkup no later than his first birthday
  • When the first tooth appears, use a fluoridated toothpaste and soft-bristled brush to brush your little angel’s pearly white. Use a toothbrush that is age-appropriate size and with just a smear of the toothpaste
  • Make it a point to brush your infant’s new teeth twice a day for optimal results
  • Do not let your child fall asleep while he feeds. Make sure you get him to clean his teeth before he sleeps
  • Do not give your kid a bottle filled with fruit juice, formula, breast milk or sugar water to suck on while he is falling asleep
  • Avoid nursing your infant for prolonged periods

2. Steps For Toddlers:

  • Don’t let your toddler have a bottle or sippy cup with juice or milk as he falls asleep
  • Encourage your child to drink the milk and juice from a cup rather than sipping it slowly, as it will reduce the exposure of his teeth to decay-causing sugars present in the milk and juice
  • Brush your child’s teeth with a pea-sized amount of toothpaste twice a day. Also, brush his teeth after he consumes sweets
  • Now is the best time to teach your child the importance of flossing. It will get rid of food particles stuck between his teeth
  • Avoid giving your child sugary foods and fruits that have high acid content
  • Don’t use fluoridated toothpaste until your toddler is two years old and teach him to spit out the toothpaste rather than swallowing it
  • Make sure you brush your child’s teeth for at least two minutes
  • Encourage your child to drink water during mealtimes rather than juices and soft drinks [6]

[ Read: Tooth Abscess In Children ]

Other Tips To Prevent Tooth Decay In Children:

Here are few other tips that you can use to make sure your child’s pearly whites are free from cavities.

1. Use Fluoride:

It is important your child uses fluoride to prevent the process of dental caries. It can reverse and stop early tooth decay by remineralization of the tooth enamel and hindering the ability of decay-causing bacteria to produce acids.

Fluoride is present in municipal water supply. Alternatively, you can get your fluoride from the toothpaste. Sometimes, dentists may feel your kid needs fluoride treatment, and this is possible with fluoride tablets or application of fluoride varnish on the surface of the teeth.

2. Supervise The Food Your Child Eats:

Children have the tendency to eat foods that are high in sugars and starches. These are foods that bacteria love, as they use the sugars and starches in the food. Keep sweets and other treats for special occasions.

3. Keep Your Child Away From Sugary Drinks:

Dr. Christopher Allen from the British Dental Association says: “”Parents and carers may feel that giving sugar-sweetened drinks is comforting, but in reality it’s more likely to cause pain and suffering as it is the major cause of tooth decay in toddlers.”

While your kiddo’s saliva will ward off the acid attack, but it teeth are repeatedly put through this attack throughout the day, the saliva will be unable to cope with it, resulting in mineral loss and finally formation of a cavity.

4. Limit Snacks Between Meals:

Do not let your sweetie graze throughout the day. This will limit the number of acid attacks on his teeth and allow the teeth to remineralize.

5. No Eating Or Drinking After Brushing:

Make it a rule that your cutesy cannot eat or drinking anything after he brushes his teeth. If he wants to drink something, let him have some plain, unsweetened water. Remember saliva flow reduces when you sleep. Hence, with less saliva, teeth are unable to repair themselves.

6. Opt for Dental Sealants:

You can avoid your cutesy from getting cavities in his molars with dental sealants. These are thin, plastic coatings that dentists paint on the chewing surface of the molars. As a result, the tiny pits and grooves get covered, leaving no room for food particles or bacteria to get stuck in them.

It is best to get dental sealants the moment your child gets his molars. The first molars make an appearance between the ages of five and seven while the second set of permanent molar come out between the ages of 11 and 14.

7. Never Neglect Dental Checkups:

Regular dental checkups are a must. This will allow the pediatric dentist an opportunity to examine your kid’s teeth for early signs of decay and take remedial measures. The dentist will also clean your kiddo’s teeth if there is dental plaque buildup. Make it a point to take your child to the dentist every six months. This is also an excellent opportunity to educate your little one on the importance of oral hygiene. The dentist will show your kid how he should clean his teeth.

[ Read: Dental Care For Kids ]

Child Tooth Decay Treatment:

You may feel it is unnecessary to treat baby teeth as they will fall off sooner or later, and your child will get permanent teeth. This may not be the route you want to take.

“There is a myth that baby teeth are not important but the fact is that they are vital as they help guide adult teeth into position. Persistent infections can be detrimental to the child’s general health, and early loss of baby teeth can also lead to problems with adult teeth later in life,” says Sondos Albadri, Reader and Consultant pediatric dentistry at the University of Liverpool.

Primary teeth, as milk teeth are also called, are space holders for permanent teeth. If your kiddo loses one baby tooth before it is ready to fall, other neighboring teeth will crowd into the vacant space. This will prevent the permanent tooth from erupting. It will mar your little one’s smile. Also, a decayed baby tooth can get an abscess, which is one painful occurrence that you don’t want your sweet angel from experiencing.

1. Remineralization:

If there is just a white spot on the tooth, your pediatric dentist will suggest a fluoride treatment, where the dentist will apply fluoride gel or varnish on the tooth’s surface to remineralize it. Alternatively, he may prescribe a fluoridated toothpaste to repair the affected part of the tooth and reverse the decay.

2. Fillings:

Fillings are for cavities or holes in the teeth. It involves removing the decayed portion of the tooth and then filling it with amalgam or ceramic resin. Usually, amalgam is for molars, where it is not necessary to have a cosmetically beautiful tooth. On the other hand, if a tooth in the front part of the mouth requires filling, the dentist will opt for a tooth-colored ceramic filling.

3. Dental Sealant:

If your little one has a tiny cavity on the chewing surface of a tooth, the dentist will clean and fill the hole and then cover it with a dental sealant to prevent further cavities. [7]

Before deciding on a treatment option, consult the pediatric dentist to find out which treatment is the best for your child.

[ Read: Germs, Bacteria, And Virus Facts For Kids ]

Natural Remedies For Tooth Decay In Children:

Along with conventional dental treatment for cavities, you also can use natural remedies. Some of these remedies have been passed down for generations, and anecdotal evidence shows they are effective in combating tooth decay in children.

1. Clove:

Clove is even used by dentists so you just can’t go wrong with it. It has analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. It can alleviate pain and also stop the decay from spreading to other teeth.

Clove oil is very potent so don’t use it without diluting it. You can dilute it using sesame seed oil. Use about a quarter teaspoon of sesame seed oil for two to three drops of clove oil. Place a few drops of the mixture onto a cotton ball and gently dab the affected tooth.

2. Salt Water Mouth Rinse:

Salt has antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties. Hence, it is an effective home remedy for tooth decay in children. It can ease inflammation, prevent the proliferation of bacteria, reduce pain and help with the infection.

Dissolve a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water. Ask your child to swish the saltwater in the mouth for about a minute, focusing on the affected tooth. Use this home remedy three times a day for best results.

3. Turmeric:

The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. It has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It can keep the gums and teeth healthy, and can prevent dental decay brought on by a bacterial infection.

Roast the turmeric rhizome and then grind it. Gently massage the ground paste on the affected tooth. It will help in pain alleviation and also reduce the swelling [8].

4. Cinnamon Oil:

Research shows cinnamon oil is effective in destroying cavity-causing bacteria. In fact, the oil is more potent than clove oil when it comes to killing bacteria that cause cavities [9]. However, cinnamon oil is strong so dilute it before using.

Add a few drops of cinnamon oil in some water and get your child to rinse with this natural mouth rinse. It will get rid of the bacteria and prevent cavities.

5. Oregano Oil:

Oregano oil has antimicrobial properties. Hence, it can help with dental caries by getting rid of the cavity-causing bacteria.

Mix a little oil with some salt and get your child to brush his teeth with this mixture once a day. It will keep cavities at bay and also improve the health of his gum. You may have to fight your little angel over this home remedy, as it takes a little time to get used to the taste of the oil.

6. Garlic:

Okay, let’s face it. This will be a tough home remedy for your kid. The odor and pungency of garlic will bring out the worst in your child, who will prefer the pain to the garlic! Nonetheless, keep persevering, as garlic has potent anti-bacterial and antibiotic properties. It can alleviate pain while making the teeth and gums healthier.

Crush about three to four cloves of garlic to make a paste with a quarter teaspoon of rock salt. Apply on the affected tooth and let the paste stand for about 10 minutes. Then get your child to rinse with some mouthwash. Use this home remedy twice a day and in a few weeks, you should notice the cavity getting smaller.

7. Licorice:

Licorice contains two compounds, licoricidin and licorisoflavan A. These compounds have anti-bacterial properties and have the ability to kill cavity-causing bacteria [10].

Crush dried licorice root and let your child brush his teeth with the powder. You can get dried licorice root powder in a health food store. That too will work to combat cavities and keep gum disease at bay.

In Conclusion:

Teach your child the importance of protecting his teeth. And, you can do this by being a role model and maintain good oral hygiene and eating foods that do not promote bacterial growth in the mouth.

Cavities are not very pleasant, but thanks to our modern lifestyles and eating habits, they have become very common. There is no substitute for good oral health and nutritious diet. If you follow both diligently, you will minimize the chances of your little angel getting cavities. If your child still manages to get cavities, a pediatric dentist along with a few home remedies will help treat the problem.

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