Save a Smile Dental Program helps children every week with severe decay. This story is told by a dentist about a 2 1/2 year old girl. We help children in the same unfortunate situation.
Is Fluoride Safe for Children?
By Dr. Brittany Seymour Assistant Professor, Harvard School of Dental Medicine
It was my first year out of dental school, and I was treating a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who grew up in a community without fluoride in the water. Her four front teeth were so badly decayed, painful and infected that I had to remove them completely. For a tiny toddler, the lights and sounds of the dental chair can feel terrifying. Although she was scared and crying, she held perfectly still while I treated her. I was so proud of her. After the procedure, we were standing in the hallway with her mom and I was explaining how to care for her at home while she was healing from her dental infection. The little girl was calm now, positioned on her mother’s hip and watched me as I talked. Suddenly, in the middle of my sentence, this tiny girl reached out, threw her arms around my neck and hugged me. Her mother and I both gasped in surprise. The little girl didn’t say anything at all, just hugged me for the longest time. I knew instantly why, and I hugged her right back. She was finally free from her pain. That was 11 years ago. I will never forget her or the pain my tiniest patient had been living with for so long because of cavities. Now, as the mom of a young daughter myself, this story has taken on new personal meaning. Our children deserve the healthiest start to their lives, and a healthy smile is one of the best gifts we can give them. Treating cavities is important, but preventing cavities is best. That’s where fluoride comes in. Millions of children in the United States and around the world have been spared thanks to fluoride in tap water, toothpaste and routine dental checkups starting no later than a child’s first birthday.
Why is fluoride important?
Did you know dental cavities are the most common disease in children and adults worldwide? Fluoride is one of the best and safest ways we can prevent cavities for children and adults alike. Here’s how fluoride works. Your mouth contains bacteria that feed on the sugars in the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. This produces acid that can wear away the hard, outer shell of your tooth (enamel). This can lead to cavities. Fluoride protects teeth by making your teeth stronger and more resistant to acid. It not only reduces the risk of cavities, it can even help reverse early signs of decay. Due to its success in preventing cavities, fluoride in water was named a top public health achievement in the 20th century.
Do I need to be worried about my child drinking water with fluoride?
No. Fluoridated water is easy, inexpensive and one of the best beverage choices for kids. Sweetened drinks like fruit juice (even those labeled 100% natural), soda and sports drinks contribute to tooth decay. Fluoridated water protects teeth. Sugary drinks also contribute to weight gain, where water with fluoride is calorie-free. Something else to keep in mind is that fluoride is natural. It is an element found at some level in all natural water sources. If you’re drinking tap water in communities that add fluoride to the public water supply, you’re getting just the right amount of fluoride to help your teeth thanks to strict standards set by the EPA. Not all bottled water has fluoride, so check the label or contact the bottler to be sure you’re getting the fluoride your teeth need. While most water filters used at home (in a pitcher or attached to the tap) do not remove fluoride, home water treatment systems such as reverse osmosis (RO) and distillation do remove significant amounts of fluoride from the water. Check with the manufacturer to learn if what you are using at home removes fluoride.
When should I start brushing my child’s teeth, and how much fluoride toothpaste should I use?
To keep your baby’s mouth as clean as possible, use a soft cloth to wipe his or her gums clean from the start. Once those first teeth start coming through the gums, begin brushing them with a soft, child-sized toothbrush (my daughter loved her Elmo toothbrush) and a tiny smear of fluoride toothpaste about the size of a grain of rice and minimizes the amount your child swallows. This will help spread the fluoride onto teeth without your child swallowing too much, since he or she can’t really spit yet. Once your child becomes better at spitting (about age 3), use a pea-sized amount of toothpaste and have your child spit after brushing. Keep helping your child brush until at least age five or six. It may be a team effort until then (it is at our home!), but keep doing the final brushing just to be sure all the “sugar bugs” are gone. Stickers help!