Affinity Health Plan

  • Two Main Causes for Tooth Decay in Children

    February 23, 2015

    February is National Children's Dental Health Month. But really, dental care is important all year round, especially for children.  In America, more than one-fourth of children between the ages of two and five years old have tooth decay. It is worse for pre-teens and teenagers between the ages of 12 and 15. Almost half of them have tooth decay. In lower-income families, two-thirds of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 have had tooth decay, writes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

    father and daughter brushing their teeth The building blocks for cavities start in the early stages of life. It is passed to babies by either the primary caregiver or by the mother and sometimes the father. "Most people don't know that it is something that can be transmitted," said Dr. Lee Perry, NYS Director of Dentaquest. The cause of tooth decay is bacteria called Streptococcus mutans. These germs exist in everybody's mouth, and they are very catchy. "Tooth decay is a communicable disease," said Dr. Perry.

    This disease is passed on to babies by doing such things as tasting food using a spoon, and then feeding a baby with that spoon. Another way is to put a pacifier in your mouth before giving it to a baby. Even kissing passes it on. Anything that passes small bits saliva from the main caregiver's mouth to the baby's mouth spreads the germs. What's more, the worse an adult's teeth are, the more likely that person will spread their germs to a baby or toddler.  "And the child carries it on through their life," he explained.

    Sugar is the other building block for tooth decay. "It ferments in the mouth," Dr. Perry said, adding, "it increases the probability of tooth decay." He went on to emphasize that without sugar and the germ called Streptococcus mutans "you can't have dental decay."

    Once decayed or damaged, a tooth must be fixed, and "the repair is never as good as the original," Dr. Perry pointed out.  The best way to handle the forces that cause tooth decay is to control it every day.

    Begin by taking your child to a dentist at a very early age. Dr. Perry said that a baby should visit the dentist shortly after their first tooth erupts and certainly no later than one year old. At that first visit, the dentist can look at the baby's tooth and bone structure and give advice on teething problems. "It starts them off with good habits," he said.

    This advice is highly recommended to all parents and primary caregivers. "But a lot of parents don't avail themselves of it," said Dr. Perry. "Even conscientious parents don't bring a child in until they are four or five years old," he added. Unfortunately, in all too many cases when a child has a first visit with a dentist it is because there is a problem. "If a visit to the dentist is only done when the child has a toothache, then their first visit can be a horrific experience," Dr. Perry said. A painful first meeting is a memory that can last through childhood and longer, making subsequent dental visits difficult. Dr. Perry said that it is critical to have tots visit at a very young age before cavities start. Then the dentist can make the visit much more enjoyable. "It is most important to get them comfortable," he said.

    "Dental care is really setting up good habits for a lifetime," Dr. Perry said. The ones most responsible for that are parents and primary caregivers. Below are some rules to follow:

    • At night, do not give your baby or toddler a bottle filled with milk or juice. A bottle left in a sleeping baby's mouth can cause serious tooth decay.
    • Cut down on sweets.
    • Keep your mouth clean.
    • A parent should take their children to see a dentist regularly, about every 6 months.

    Let your children see you brushing and flossing your teeth. "Kids watch their parents," Dr. Perry noted. They also imitate them. "That gets them into good habits," he said. Flossing is kind of a hard thing for a child to learn, he acknowledged.  "But like with anything else you have to practice," he said.

    For those parents who have babies or children who suck their thumbs or fingers,  the doctor cautioned not to become too worried over it disfiguring their teeth. "It depends on how frequent and how vigorously they do this," he said. "I tell a lot of parents that what they should look out for is a tongue thrust. That can be disfiguring," Dr. Perry said.  As with vigorous thumb sucking, tongue thrusting puts a lot pressure on the front teeth, and eventually they can be forced out of alignment. The results are teeth that can only be made straight by an orthodontist, a dentist who specializes in straightening teeth.

    When caring for your teeth the most important things to do is to brush, floss, limit sweets and see your dentist regularly.  "If you can do that," Dr. Perry said, "usually it is pretty simple for the rest of your life."

    Affinity Health Plan provides its members' children with dental care through a contract with DentaQuest. Call 1-866-731-8004 (TTY: 1-800-662-1220) for customer Services. To go to a dental clinic that is run by an academic dental center without a referral, call DentaQuest at 1-866-731-8004 (TTY: 1-800-662-1220) for more information.

    Dr. Lee Perry is the NYS Dental Director for DentaQuest. He served as the Medicaid Dental Director for the NYS Department of Health from 2005 until his retirement in 2013. He also served as the Associate Medicaid Dental Director for NYS Department of Health. Dr. Perry began his career in dentistry for the NYS Department of Health in 1993. 

    Comments (3)

    Steve Holt on 09/08/2015
    Dr. Lee Perry's suggestion that tooth decay can be transmitted from parent to child is really interesting. I've heard that genetics can play a role in your dental health, but I've never thought of it as a disease. Now I'm starting to understand why new parents are less willing to share food and other items with their children. When I was a kid, my mom shared her utensils, food, and cups with me and my brother. Perhaps that's why we both had problems with cavities, even though we both brushed and flossed every day. It seems like there should be more research done to support this claim, but I'm really interested in seeing if this is really true.
    Stephie Smith on 09/22/2015
    I've got a family member that's been feeding her kids sugary snacks at a young age. Ultimately, she's the mother and it's her business what she feeds her kids, but I can't help but think of the dentist visits revealing cavities, not to mention the hyperactivity. Prevention is the best route for avoiding cavities. Thanks for sharing!
    Olivia Sherwin on 01/08/2016
    These are some great tips, and I appreciate your advice to take your child to the dentist at an early age. I didn't realize they should be taken as early as when their first tooth erupts! My daughter is starting to get her teeth, so I'll definitely take her to the dentist as soon as I can. Thanks for the great post!
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