You've heard it. Your parents heard it—maybe even your grandparents too. Dentists have been alerting people for more than half a century that high sugar consumption contributes to tooth decay.
That message hasn't changed because the facts behind it are the same in the 2020s as they were in the 1950s: The bacteria that cause tooth decay feast on sugar and other leftover carbohydrates in the mouth. This causes them to multiply and increase their production of acid, which softens and erodes tooth enamel.
What has changed though, especially over the last couple of decades, is a growing understanding of how sugar consumption may affect the rest of the body. Just like the evidence of sugar's relationship to tooth decay, current scientific studies are now showing there are strong links between sugar and diseases like diabetes, heart disease and liver disease.
What's startling about what researchers are finding is that cases of these diseases are growing, Especially in younger people. This is a parallel trend to our skyrocketing increases in per capita sugar consumption: the average American now eats the equivalent of 19.5 teaspoons of added sugar every day. Health experts generally agree we should consume no more than 6 teaspoons a day, and children 4.
This is vastly more than we consumed a generation ago. One reason is because processed food manufacturers have increased sugar in their products, hiding under technical, unfamiliar names in ingredient lists. But it's still sugar, and an estimated 74% of processed foods contain some form of it.
But the real surge in sugar has come from our increasing consumption of sodas, as well as energy and sports beverages. These beverages are high in sugar—you can meet your daily allowance with just one 12-oz can of soda. These beverages are now the leading source of sugar in our diets, and, according to experts, a highly dangerous way to consume it.
In effect, dentists of old were on to something: too much sugar is bad for your teeth. It now turns out that it may be bad for your overall health too. Strictly limiting it in your family's diet could help lower your risk of tooth decay and dangerous diseases like diabetes.
The monarchs of the world experience the same health issues as their subjects—but they often tend to be hush-hush about it. Recently, though, the normally reticent Queen Elizabeth II let some young dental patients in on a lesser known fact about Her Majesty's teeth.
While touring a new dental hospital, the queen told some children being fitted for braces that she too “had wires” once upon a time. She also said, “I think it's worth it in the end.”
The queen isn't the only member of the House of Windsor to need help with a poor bite. Both Princes William and Harry have worn braces, as have other members of the royal family. A propensity for overbites, underbites and other malocclusions (poor bites) can indeed pass down through families, whether of noble or common lineage.
Fortunately, there are many ways to correct congenital malocclusions, depending on their type and severity. Here are 3 of them.
Braces and clear aligners. Braces are the tried and true way to straighten misaligned teeth, while the clear aligner method—removable plastic mouth trays—is the relative “new kid on the block.” Braces are indeed effective for a wide range of malocclusions, but their wires and brackets make it difficult to brush and floss, and they're not particularly attractive. Clear aligners solve both of these issues, though they may not handle more complex malocclusions as well as braces.
Palatal expanders. When the upper jaw develops too narrowly, a malocclusion may result from teeth crowding into too small a space. But before the upper jaw bones fuse together in late childhood, orthodontists can fit a device called a palatal expander inside the upper teeth, which exerts gentle outward pressure on the teeth. This encourages more bone growth in the center to widen the jaw and help prevent a difficult malocclusion from forming.
Specialized braces for impacted teeth. An impacted tooth, which remains partially or completely hidden in the gums, can impede dental health, function and appearance. But we may be able to coax some impacted teeth like the front canines into full eruption. This requires a special orthodontic technique in which a bracket is surgically attached to the impacted tooth's crown. A chain connected to the bracket is then looped over other orthodontic hardware to gradually pull the tooth down where it should be.
Although some techniques like palatal expanders are best undertaken in early dental development, people of any age and reasonably good health can have a problem bite corrected with other methods. If you are among those who benefit from orthodontics, you'll have something in common with the Sovereign of the British Isles: a healthy, attractive and straighter smile.
Teeth lost to tooth decay can have devastating consequences for a child’s dental health. Not only can it disrupt their current nutrition, speech and social interaction, it can also skew their oral development for years to come.
Fortunately, we have a number of preventive tools to curb decay in young children. One of the most important of these, dental sealants, has been around for decades. We apply these resin or glass-like material coatings to the pits and crevices of teeth (especially molars) to help prevent the buildup of bacterial plaque in areas where bacteria tend to thrive.
Applying sealants is a simple and pain-free process. We first brush the coating in liquid form onto the teeth’s surface areas we wish to protect. We then use a special curing light to harden the sealant and create a durable seal.
So how effective are sealants in preventing tooth decay? Two studies in recent years reviewing dental care results from thousands of patients concluded sealants could effectively reduce cavities even four years after their application. Children who didn’t receive sealants had cavities at least three times the rate of those who did.
Sealant applications, of course, have some expense attached to them. However, it’s far less than the cost for cavity filling and other treatments for decay, not to mention future treatment costs resulting from previous decay. What’s more important, though, is the beneficial impact sealants can have a child’s dental health now and on into adulthood. That’s why sealants are recommended by both the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
And while sealants are effective, they’re only one part of a comprehensive strategy to promote your child’s optimum dental health. Daily brushing and flossing, a “tooth-friendly” diet and regular dental cleanings and checkups are also necessary in helping to keep your child’s teeth healthy and free of tooth decay.
You can't go wrong with an early start caring for your child's teeth and gums. In fact, dental care should begin in earnest when their first tooth appears.
You should begin by gently cleaning your infant's gums and new teeth after each feeding with a clean, water-soaked washcloth or gauze pad. Once they start eating solid food, you should transition to a soft-bristled brush with just a smear of fluoridated toothpaste. Around age 2, you can increase that to a pea-sized amount and begin teach them to brush for themselves.
The next important element in your child's dental care is beginning regular dental visits around their first birthday. There are good reasons to begin visits at this time. There primary teeth should now be erupting in earnest and you'll want to begin prevention measures against tooth decay if needed. You'll also want to get them used to going to the dentist early in life: if you wait a year or two later, they may not respond well to the unfamiliar surroundings of a dental office.
There are also a number of things you can do to support hygiene and dental visits. You should not allow your child to sleep with a pacifier covered or a bottle filled with anything but water. Milk, juices and other sugar-containing liquids will raise the risk of tooth decay. And speaking of sugar, limit their consumption to meal times: snacking constantly on sugar can create an environment ripe for decay.
Of course, dental disease isn't the only hazard your child's teeth may face. Accidents can happen and your child's otherwise healthy teeth could be injured. So, make sure they don't play too close to hard furniture or other features around the house they could fall on. If they should begin playing contact sports, invest in a custom mouth guard — avoiding an injury is well worth the cost.
Getting into dental care with your children as soon as possible will set the foundation for good oral health. And the example you set will stick with them as they take on their own dental care when they're older.
If you would like more information on caring for your child's teeth, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Top 10 Oral Health Tips for Children.”
Proactive dental care is an essential part of childhood growth. But that care can be much harder for children with chronic health issues than for healthier children.
“Chronic condition” is an umbrella term for any permanent and ongoing health issue. Asthma, Down’s syndrome, cystic fibrosis, congenital heart defects and many others fall under this umbrella, with varying symptoms and degrees of intensity. But they all have one common characteristic — a long-term effect on all aspects of a child’s health.
That includes the health of a child’s teeth and gums. Here, then, are a few areas where a chronic health condition could impact dental care and treatment.
Ineffective oral hygiene. Some chronic conditions like autism or hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that affect behavior or cognitive skills can decrease a child’s ability or willingness to brush or floss; some conditions may also limit their physical ability to perform these tasks. Parents and caregivers may need to seek out tailored training for their child’s needs, or assist them on a regular basis.
Developmental defects. Children with chronic conditions are also more likely to have other developmental problems. For example, a child with Down, Treacher-Collins or Turner syndromes mayÂ be more likely to develop a birth defect called enamel hypoplasia in which not enough tooth enamel develops. Children with this defect must be monitored more closely and frequently for tooth decay.
Special diets and medications. A child with a chronic condition may need to eat different foods at different times as part of their treatment. But different dietary patterns like nutritional shakes or more frequent feedings to boost caloric intake can increase risk for tooth decay. Likewise, children on certain medications may develop lower saliva flow, leading to higher chance of disease. You’ll need to be more alert to the signs of tooth decay if your child is on such a diet or on certain medications, and they may need to see the dentist more often.
While many chronic conditions raise the risk of dental disease, that outcome isn’t inevitable. Working with your dentist and remaining vigilant with good hygiene practices, your special needs child can develop and maintain healthy teeth and gums.
If you would like more information on dental care for children with chronic health conditions, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Managing Tooth Decay in Children with Chronic Diseases.”
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