According to a 2013 report by Public Health England that examined the data from 133,000 dental examinations, more than a quarter of five-year-olds in England have tooth decay. Decay stems largely from a poor diet, but can also be the result of poor dental care. Any child that is not educated in oral hygiene, or is not encouraged or supervised in their teeth cleaning on a daily basis, may continue with their bad habits into later life and their adult teeth will be badly affected.
There has been a 3% improvement in children's teeth since 2008, when 69% of five-year-olds had no tooth decay, but it is still the case that children with decay had on average, three or four affected teeth out of 20. There is still much to do when you consider that dental decay is easily preventable.
What Is Tooth Decay?
Tooth decay (also known as dental decay and dental caries) is caused by plaque building up on the teeth. The bacteria in plaque feed on the sugars found in food and drink, and then produce an acid that will slowly destroy the teeth. The acids in the mouth dissolve the outer layers of the teeth.
The symptoms of tooth decay will vary over time depending on the extent of the problem. Symptoms can include:
- Pain when eating or drinking
- Visible discoloured spots on the teeth
- A build-up of plaque that is not treated can lead to gum disease (gingivitis) and dental abscesses.
The causes of tooth decay are easily defined. Bacteria in the mouth combine with small food particles and saliva to form a sticky film, which is known as plaque and this builds up on the teeth. When the bacteria in the plaque comes into contact with food and drink that is high in carbohydrates (either sugary or starchy) then acid is produced. The acid in the plaque that is stuck to the teeth will then start to work off the surface of the tooth. If this plaque is not treated the tooth can be worn away to such an extent that the nerves inside the tooth are exposed. This is what gives you toothache.
How to Prevent Tooth Decay in Children
- In order to prevent tooth decay in children, oral hygiene needs to start very early and should be attended to twice a day, every day.
- Parents should brush the teeth of very young children for at least two minutes twice a day.
- Tooth brushing should be supervised until the child is seven or eight years old. Watch how they do it and correct them if necessary.
- Use a specially formulated children's toothpaste with fluoride.
- Brush your teeth in the right way by placing the head of the toothbrush against the teeth, tilting to a 45-degree angle against the gumline and moving the brush in small circular movements.
- Brush the inside and outer surfaces and the biting surfaces of the teeth.
- Brushing the tongue to help freshen breath will remove bacteria.
- Make regular dental checks for your children as a dentist can spot signs of tooth decay early and identify any damage to the teeth). Remember, tooth decay is much easier and less painful to treat successfully in its early stages. Repairing damaged teeth with fillings and crowns can prevent further problems.
- Replace your child's toothbrush every 6-10 weeks.
Ideally you should floss once a day as flossing will remove plaque and food particles from between the teeth and under the gumline where the toothbrush cannot reach. Take approximately 45 cm of floss and hold it tightly by winding sections around your fingers. Use the exposed inch to gently floss between the teeth. Scrape the sides of the teeth. Gently remove the floss, expose a new section and continue.
Dental mouthwash containing fluoride can be used to prevent tooth decay in children. There are special children's mouthwashes available. Follow the instructions on the packaging or consult your dentist.
Changing what you feed your children, or what you allow them to eat, can minimise their risk of tooth decay. Cut down on the availability of sugary food and drinks, particularly between meals and within one hour of heading to bed.
Encourage your child to cut down on food and drink that is high in fermented carbohydrates, including fizzy drinks, sugary drinks (including tea and coffee), sweets, cakes and biscuits of course, but also crisps, and white bread. Healthier snacks and drinks would include cheese, fruit and vegetables and unsweetened drinks.
Good sources of unrefined carbohydrates to include in your child's diet include pasta, rice, vegetables and eggs.
Parents should also look at the labels of convenience foods as well as medicines and avoid those that have high levels of sugar. Watch out for ingredients such as glucose, sucrose, dextrose and fructose as these are high in sugar.