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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Oral Health

Children's Dental Health

What causes tooth decay? Tooth decay is the result of an infection with certain types of bacteria that use sugars in food to make acids. Over time, these acids can make a cavity (hole) in the tooth.

Despite the fact that it is almost entirely preventable, tooth decay is the most common chronic disease in children. More than 40 percent of children ages 2 to 11 have had a cavity in their primary (baby) teeth, and more than two-thirds of 16- to 19-year-olds have had a cavity in their permanent teeth. Although overall rates of tooth decay have decreased over the past four decades, decay has actually increased in preschool age children in recent years.

The good news is there are safe and effective preventive measures that can protect teeth. Good oral hygiene practices such as thorough brushing with a fluoride toothpaste can help keep children from getting cavities. In addition, dental sealants and community water fluoridation are two other strategies that can help prevent tooth decay.

Dental Sealants

Dental sealants are thin, plastic coatings painted on the chewing surfaces of the back teeth to keep germs and food out of their pits and grooves. Studies supported by the NIH's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and others have shown that sealants are safe and effective. But many people don't know about sealants. In fact, fewer than one-third of children in the U.S. have sealants on their teeth.

How can I get sealants for my children? Talk to your dentist about getting sealants for your children. Some health insurance programs pay for sealants; ask your health insurance provider or your state Medicaid office. Sometimes sealants are also put on at school. Check with your school about whether it has a dental sealant program.

Community Water Fluoridation

Nearly all naturally occurring water sources contain fluoride— a mineral that prevents tooth decay and even reverses early decay. Community water fluoridation adjusts the amount of fluoride in an area's water supply to a level that helps to prevent tooth decay and promote oral health. Today, 74 percent of Americans served by a community water supply receive fluoridated water. But that still leaves many people in the U.S. without access to fluoridated tap water.

How can I find out if my water has fluoride? The best way to find the fluoride level of your local public water system is to contact your water utility provider. You can find the name and contact information of the water utility on your water bill. Your child's dentist or physician may also know if your water has fluoride in it.

Summer 2012 Issue: Volume 7 Number 2 Page 22