Tooth decay in children is increasing and it is nothing to smile about

May 15, 2012

Encourage good oral habits for overall dental well-being

A recent report finds that cavities in children are increasing. Cavities are holes in teeth caused by decay and dentists around the country are seeing more preschool-age patients with more than one cavity.

Some dentists have seen children with more than 10 cavities. For serious problems like that, dentists have to do surgery.

Dr. Megann Smiley is a dentist-anesthesiologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

She said, "The most severe cases have 12 or 16, which is seen several times a week." For these children with severe cases of tooth decay, dentists use general anesthesia. Anesthesia is a drug that blocks pain. Children may not sit still through drillings on multiple teeth. So, dentists use anesthesia to put children to sleep while they're being treated.

The New York Times reports that there are no national figures about children's cavities. But interviews it did with 20 dentists and others involved in dental surgery suggest that the problem is widespread.

Dr. Stanley Alexander is the chair of pediatric dentistry at Tufts University. He said his dentists are in the operating room at least two mornings a week. They are seeing up to nine preschool-age patients in need of surgery for cavities. He's seen this problem dating back to when he was a resident in the 1970s.

"It's not new — it's been going on quite a while," Alexander said.

What's the cause of poor dental health in preschoolers? Dentists blame parents who aren't brushing their kids' teeth twice a day. Some parents said they simply didn't think about brushing their children's teeth. Other parents said they didn't want to deal with crying kids who hated teeth brushing.

Dr. Jed Best is a pediatric dentist in Manhattan.

"I'd much rather have a kid cry with a soft toothbrush," he said, "than when I have to drill a cavity."

There are other reasons for the preschool cavity problem. Many children snack on sweets and drink sugar-loaded juice. One surgeon said a boy brought soda to his second round of dental surgery.

Alexander said that parents sometimes give their kids a bottle of juice at bedtime. This is a bad idea. The mouth's natural cleaning processes are less active when people sleep. Breast milk also contains natural sugars that can erode teeth, he said.

Alexander said parents need to learn about children's dental care and risk factors for decay. They need to learn these things before they even have kids. Parents should talk with their family dentist.

The rise in children's cavities concerns many dentists nationwide.

"It's unfortunate; a lot of this could be prevented," Alexander noted.

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