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When it comes to kids’ dental exams, it’s rewarding for both children and parents to hear the words, “Congrats, you’re cavity-free!” After all, it’s safe to say that keeping tooth decay at bay in kids is a group effort. 

Oak Tree Pediatric Dentistry, your Greenville kids’ dentists, are ready to help you establish good oral health routines at home and make good choices when it comes to cavity prevention options and treatment. We’re all about educating our patients and giving families the personalized tools they need to prevent dental problems in their kids. With that in mind, we want to share the basics of cavities and tooth decay in kids.

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • What is tooth decay?
  • What causes tooth decay in children?
  • Signs and symptoms of tooth decay in kids
  • How to prevent cavities in kids
  • Cavity treatment for kids

What is Tooth Decay

Let’s start with defining tooth decay so if asked, you’ll know how to explain it to your kids! Tooth decay, also known as dental caries (or cavities), starts with the breakdown of tooth enamel—the tooth’s thin but hard, protective outer shell. Yes, even though tooth enamel is the toughest tissue in the human body (fun fact!), it’s still susceptible to damage.

The culprit? Acids. Acids in your mouth weaken tooth enamel over time by depleting the minerals that make it strong. These enamel-damaging acids appear when oral bacteria start breaking down your mouth’s sugars from food. 

Eventually, weakened tooth enamel can develop tiny holes, exposing the tooth underneath. These holes are known as cavities. If cavities get too deep into a tooth, they can expose nerves and cause pain or sensitivity. You can even lose a tooth if a cavity is infected.

What Causes Tooth Decay in Children?

Now that you know what tooth decay is in children, you might be wondering, “How do kids get cavities?” As mentioned, tooth decay happens when bacteria metabolize sugars (and any carbohydrates) and produce enamel-weakening acids. The bacteria also mix with food sugars and saliva to become a sticky substance called plaque that sticks to teeth. But where does the bacteria come from? You might be surprised to know that most children get this bacteria from their parents by the age of two, so every child is susceptible to tooth decay. 

But are some kids more prone to cavities? Yes, some kids constantly get cavities, even though they have amazing oral hygiene habits and a teeth-friendly diet. It turns out that genetics plays a role in your child’s teeth health, sometimes even contributing to higher levels of oral bacteria. But overall, the largest contributors to tooth decay in kids are factors like: 

  • Eating and drinking lots of sugary treats and starches
  • Frequent eating and drinking (each sip, each bite, no matter how small, starts the cavity process!)
  • Little or no fluoride in the water supply
  • Not brushing and flossing well or regularly
  • Less saliva flow because of dehydration, mouth breathing, allergies, asthma, or certain medications

Signs and Symptoms of Tooth Decay in Kids

Tooth decay in kids can be hard to spot at home. And if your little one isn’t complaining of any discomfort or pain in their teeth, cavities can go unnoticed. That’s why it’s essential your child attends their twice-annual cleanings and exams. Your Oak Tree pediatric dentist Dr. Jon Chay and his colleague Dr. Martha Hendrix are experts in diagnosing tooth decay and other kids’ dental problems. 

Here are some signs of tooth decay or cavities in kids you can watch out for:

  • White spots on your child’s teeth: Aren’t white teeth a good sign? Typically for esthetics, yes, but when teeth develop white spots over time, it’s a sign that enamel is starting to break down. The good news is that you won’t need a filling at this stage because the carious lesion is reversible with good oral hygiene and diet!
  • Brown or black spots on teeth: This kind of discoloration means that tooth decay has already progressed into the dentin, and a filling is needed.
  • Sensitivity or pain to sweet or cold foods and drinks: In this case, a large cavity is stimulating your tooth’s nerve. Usually, a large filling or a crown—possibly with nerve treatment— resolves the discomfort.
  • Pain around a tooth: With babies or toddlers, it’s often hard to know if a child is crying because of tooth pain associated with tooth decay or something else; a baby could be teething, or a toddler erupting a new primary tooth. Of course, older kids can tell you if their teeth hurt, though it’s not always easy for kids to pinpoint which one hurts. If there is gum “pimple” on a tooth with a large cavity, this typically means the tooth has abscessed. We would respond with tooth extraction treatment.

How to Prevent Cavities in Kids

It’s helpful to know the above signs of tooth decay, but we at Oak Tree Pediatric Dentistry believe that what’s even better is knowing how to prevent cavities in the first place. When your child visits our Greenville, SC, office for a dental exam, we will always make time to chat about oral health habits and lifestyle, so we can tailor a cavity prevention plan that suits your child’s needs. Here are the top things we cover for cavity prevention in kids:

  1. Building Great Oral Care Habits

The most effective at-home cavity prevention for kids is thorough oral hygiene. Of course, we understand that brushing and flossing well every day can be challenging for kids (and sometimes a test of patience for the adults!), but it goes a long way in maintaining healthy teeth. Not to mention that good oral care in childhood builds a lifelong habit of great oral hygiene. 

Good oral hygiene starts in infancy and evolves as your child grows. Here are tips for healthy teeth at every stage of dental development:

Babies and Early Toddlers: Wipe your infant’s gums with a clean, wet washcloth or sterile gauze after feedings. Once that first cute baby tooth erupts, brush with a baby-sized, soft-bristled toothbrush and a rice grain-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. 

Kids Ages 3-6: Increase toothpaste to a pea-sized amount when kids are ages 3-6. Brush their teeth twice a day for two minutes each time. When your child’s teeth begin to touch, add flossing to the routine once a day. 

Kids 7 and Up: Kids can typically handle brushing their teeth by age six or seven without an adult’s help, though we suggest you help them floss until they get the hang of it. Make sure your kids are drinking water that contains fluoride, and for that final preventative step, a kid-friendly mouthwash helps kill lingering bacteria.

     2. Having a Smile-Healthy Diet

We expect certain times of the year to be less teeth-friendly than others—like Halloween, Easter, or Christmas. But the rest of the year, a smile-healthy diet helps keep your kid’s teeth cavity-free. Consider the following tips for minimizing tooth decay and cavities:

  • Limit sugary treats and drinks and really sticky foods like fruit snacks and raisins.
  • Encourage a well-rounded diet of lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and veggies, and healthy fats.
  • Include crunchy veggies like raw carrots, cucumbers or broccoli. Crunching on hard veggies acts like a tooth scrubber against sticky plaque. Plus, veggies have less sugar than fruit.
  • Try to avoid continuous snacking and sipping. How often kids eat is almost as important as what they eat. Every sip and bite kicks off that enamel-weakening acid.
  • Snack on foods like cookies and starchy foods like chips in moderation, or have them as part of a larger meal.
  • Offer kids water instead of fruit juices. With babies, never give them milk, formula or juice in a bottle or sippy cup to take to bed at night.

      3. Add Professional Cavity Prevention for Kids

When your child comes in for a dental exam or cleaning, take advantage of the professional cavity prevention options we offer at Oak Tree. Depending on your child’s age and unique oral care needs, Dr. Chay or Dr. Hendrix might suggest these simple treatments that have big impact: 

Fluoride Varnish: Fluoride helps strengthen your child’s tooth enamel. A fluoride varnish painted on by your dentist can help rebuild weakened enamel and even stop early tooth decay. Quick, affordable, and painless, it only takes a few minutes, and the varnish hardens almost instantly.

High Fluoride Toothpaste: For some kids more prone to cavities, daily brushing with prescription fluoride toothpaste adds a helpful prevention layer. High fluoride toothpaste is only available through your dentist and contains a higher fluoride concentration than over-the-counter toothpaste. Keep it away from young children and pets!

Dental Sealants: Painted on like fluoride varnish, dental sealants provide cavity prevention for kids in their permanent molars (and sometimes other areas). Both baby and adult molars have dips and grooves that help break down food, but their shape isn’t helpful when it comes to avoiding food debris and plaque. Dental sealants are a BPA-free plastic coating that seals your child’s tooth surfaces against bacteria, acids and plaque.

Dental Exams: Seeing your pediatric dentist twice a year gives them a chance to catch tooth decay or cavities early and treat issues before they become big. Our dental hygienists provide your child with a thorough yet gentle clean, removing plaque and tartar with special tools that leave teeth clean and sparkling. 

Cavity Treatment for Kids

So you’ve followed all the advice of your Oak Tree dentists, and your child still has cavities. Not to worry, we understand! That’s why we offer cosmetic and restorative dentistry for kids with the goal of improving your child’s oral functioning, health, and appearance.

Tooth-Colored Fillings

At Oak Tree, we use tooth-colored cavity fillings that blend seamlessly with your child’s teeth. These discreet fillings are also strong and durable—made of a composite resin material that stays in place and withstands your child’s chewing, chewing, and more chewing! They’re also safe: mercury- and metal-free and biocompatible.

Now, we know that kids can get nervous when it comes to fillings. But we can assure you that fillings with us are comfortable and quick. At your child’s filling appointment, we take the time to explain the process and tools we use, then numb the area so your child won’t feel any discomfort. We gently clean away tooth decay and prep the area to receive the composite material. The filling is then bonded onto the tooth, cured, and shaped to fit naturally into your child’s tooth. If your child is extremely anxious or has special needs, we invite you to ask about sedation dentistry to truly put your child at ease during their treatment.

Pediatric Dental Crowns:

Most kids have worn a dress-up crown or tiara at some point. But the crowns we’re talking about here fit onto teeth, not heads! A pediatric dental crown, or cap, is used when a filling isn’t enough to repair a tooth’s structure and functioning.

If your child’s tooth has severe tooth decay, an infection that has reached into the inner pulp, or the tooth is quite damaged, a dental crown restores the function and look of a whole, healthy tooth. Teeth caps, another name for crowns, can be used for toddlers’ baby teeth to maintain functioning until the adult teeth come in. A pediatric dental crown can be a long-term solution for older kids with permanent teeth that carries on into adulthood.

A pediatric dental crown is also great cavity prevention for kids. Since it covers the entire tooth to the gumline, tooth decay and cavities have a harder time reaching the natural tooth underneath.

Fast, Pain-Free Tooth Extractions:

Sometimes, a tooth is so decayed that we recommend removal. Even though we do everything we can to keep a tooth, extraction can be the best route to prevent the spread of infection and alleviate mouth pain. At Oak Tree, we harness the latest dental technology and techniques to make the process pain-free and quick.

We Treat Cavities in Kids with Gentleness and Care

Our team is all about creating a dental experience for kids that’s engaging, safe, comfortable and fun. Whether you visit our Greenville, SC office for a comprehensive dental exam, restorative dentistry, or a cleaning for your kids, trust us to provide expert pediatric dental service that will leave you smiling.

Request an appointment today to help your child on the road to healthy, happy teeth! 

Oak Tree Pediatric Dentistry

Author Oak Tree Pediatric Dentistry

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