BY MAURA AMMENHEUSER
Did your kid gobble a bit too much Valentine's Day candy this week?
If that sweet holiday was just another coating of sugar on his teeth, consider a trip to the dentist.
Also, First 5 offers basic dental checkups for children from birth through age 5. A dentist and bilingual assistant perform dental screenings at Head Starts, preschools, day care centers and other community programs. Oral health workshops are also given at schools to teach parents about children's dental health. Children who get the screenings and parents attending the workshops get toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss -- plus, if needed, referrals for further dental treatments. The First 5 program will cover the cost of dental treatment for uninsured children while funds are available and will help with services not covered by some insurance.
Momarama asked Irma Valerio, program manager with the Riverside County Regional Medical Center Dental Program, to explain what parents can do to ensure their children keep those pearly whites as healthy as possible.
Momarama: What kind of dental problems do you tend to see in children age 5 and younger?
Valerio: Ordinary dental decay is the most commonly noticed dental
problem in young children's mouths. Nearly two-thirds of children 5 years old and younger may develop a cavity in one or more of their 20 primary teeth. Decay may be minor and localized to a few teeth, or it may become generalized and aggressive, severely damaging teeth and surrounding tissues.
The enamel is thinner on primary teeth, and decay can reach the pulp of the tooth and cause severe pain in children a more rapid rate than in adult teeth, where the enamel may provide a stronger barrier. It is our highest priority to teach parents how to help prevent decay in their child's primary teeth, but once the decay process begins, our
focus is to help the family find dental treatment to arrest the decay process and prevent the inevitable pain and infection that will soon result if left untreated.
It is also very important to restore primary teeth (with fillings and crowns placed by dentist after the decay is removed) so they do not have to be "pulled" but instead can remain in the child's mouth for an adequate length of time and can serve as guides for
the permanent teeth to erupt into the appropriate positions within the mouth. This helps to prevent the child from having crooked, misplaced permanent teeth.
The important factor in treating young children with lots of decay is their inability to cooperate for lengthy, tedious dental treatments. Specialty offices or surgery centers where general anesthesia is available to comfortably care for young children have elevated the standards of care for access to receiving dental treatment.
Other frequently noticed anomalies in "baby teeth" include enamel defects (small visible areas of discolored or malformed tooth structure that should be monitored or treated by a dentist) and the presence of fused, missing or extra teeth.
Momarama: What causes all these problems?
Valerio: Tooth decay is simply the result of certain bacteria growing on the surfaces of the teeth. These bacteria produce acid, especially when they are fed sugars or starches and when they are allowed to grow undisturbed by brushing for several hours. The acid begins to dissolve the hard outer structure of the tooth (enamel), eventually creating an opening into the less hard, inner shell of tooth structure (the dentin). Bacteria can then invade the tubule system in the dentin and be pulled closer to the nerves and blood supply in the center (pulp) of the tooth, causing pain and further destruction.
Momarama: Can you offer tips to parents on how to get their young children's teeth clean? With very young children, toothbrushing can be a wrestling match.
Valerio: It's best to begin good oral habits very early in the child's life by cleaning the mouth and gums with a warm washcloth even before teeth appear. The sensation of having the mouth touched and cared for becomes familiar and welcomed at an early age. Establishing a new brushing routine for a resistant toddler may take conviction and more effort, but it is a worth a few struggles to change a habit and maintain healthy teeth.
Begin by finding a comfortable position for child and parent) where the child's head can be supported and movement may be more limited. For example, sit down and hold the child facing forward on your lap. Gently place one hand on the child's forehead and
draw his/her head back close to your body. This can allow a stable position for brushing with the other hand. For more control, lay the child on a bed or couch and gently brush into the gumline with a moist toothbrush, restraining arms and legs as needed. Humor and rewards can help turn this activity into a fun-filled new routine. Repetition and not giving up can usually form a new habit within two weeks.
Momarama: At what age should children have their first dental checkup?
Valerio: Children should go the dentist when any teeth have erupted (appeared) or especially when the four front teeth have erupted and around the time of their first birthday.
Momarama: Sugar is notoriously bad for teeth. Are there any foods that actually improve dental health, either because they help remove residue from teeth or because of the nutrients they contain?
Valerio: No particular food works to prevent tooth decay by chewing action alone. Brushing is needed to remove bacteria and the sticky biofilms they create. But a less common form of sugar, called Xylitol, can also interfere with this bacterial film and reduce tooth decay. Xylitol can be found in some chewing gums, such as Trident with
Xylitol and in some tooth-friendly candies, such as lollipops, etc. Simply chewing gum itself may also help in the battle with tooth decay by triggering a rush of saliva, which helps counteract acid and speeds the flushing away of food and sugars. It is important to note, though, that permanent teeth begin forming at birth and good nutrition, including adequate fluoride, plays an important role in building stronger teeth.
For more information on the First 5 program, click here:
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