Everything You Should Know About Tooth Decay

We all know cavities are bad. After all, we’ve been told that since we were young, and we’re likely telling our kids now. But telling kids that cavities are bad for them isn’t enough. Today’s youngsters want to know the why behind everything. Gone are the days where children just accept what is. It’s often best to take the extra time to explain, and at We Make Kids Smile, we think that’s a good thing. After all, a well-informed child will make better oral health decisions later. So we’ve taken the time in this article to break down what you need to know about tooth decay and its causes so you can easily explain it to your child and set them up for a lifetime of excellent oral health. Read on to learn more.

What is tooth decay?

Let’s start by understanding what tooth decay is. Tooth decay is damage that occurs on the tooth’s surface or enamel. It happens when bacteria in your child’s mouth create acids that attack that enamel. When left untreated, tooth decay leads to cavities, which cause pain, infection, and even tooth loss.

Despite what you may think, anyone, including children and those with good brushing habits, is at risk for developing tooth decay. Though the contributing risk factors for tooth decay increase if your child does not take proper care of their teeth or consumes sugary or starchy foods and drinks in excess, some people are more at risk than others. Those at greater risk for tooth decay include:

  • Those who don’t produce enough saliva due to medicines, various diseases, or certain cancer treatments.
  • Those who don’t get enough fluoride in the water they drink or through fluoridated toothpaste or mouthwash.
  • Babies and toddlers who drink from bottles or sippy cups, particularly those who are provided juice or bottles at bedtime, which expose the young child’s teeth to sugars for long periods. This type of tooth decay is often referred to as baby bottle decay.
  • Older adults with receding gums have more wear on their teeth, and this raises the risk of dental decay on the exposed root surfaces of their teeth.

What causes tooth decay?

Now that you understand what tooth decay is and who is at risk for developing it, let’s discuss the causes of tooth decay. As we mentioned earlier, too many sugary or starchy foods are a common culprit, but that is just one of the many contributors to tooth decay. Understanding the causes can help lessen your child’s risk of a cavity and will also help you avoid common causes of toothaches in kids.

1. Sugary and Starchy Foods

We can’t reiterate this enough. Encourage tooth-friendly food choices such as crunchy vegetables, dairy products such as cheese, milk, yogurt, or nuts. And be sure to know your food facts too so you can be more aware of the best foods for full-body health. 

2. Buildup of Bacteria and Tartar

The ​bacteria in plaque produce acids after your child eats or drinks. When left to fester on teeth, these acids destroy tooth enamel and can lead to cavities and gingivitis (gum disease). Plaque also commonly develops below the gums on tooth roots, breaking down the bones that support your child’s teeth. Plaque left untreated by inadequate brushing or missed dental cleanings can harden into tough-to-remove tartar.

3. Infrequent or Insufficient Brushing 

Teach your children to adopt good oral hygiene habits such as brushing twice a day, flossing once per day, and rinsing daily with a fluoridated, kid-friendly mouthwash. It’s advised that everyone brushes for two minutes at a time with a soft-bristled toothbrush. If two minutes is hard for your child to get through, let them know it is equivalent to singing the alphabet six times. You can also play toothbrushing songs for your kids that might help them stay motivated to keep on brushing.

4. Imbalance in Oral Bacteria / Oral Microbiome

Your child’s oral microbiome can also be out of balance, increasing the growth of cavity-causing bacteria. When the oral microbiome is out of balance, your child can develop several oral health issues, such as tooth decay and dental cavities from the acids that eat away at the protective enamel on the teeth. Not only that, but your child is at a greater risk of developing gingivitis and periodontitis from the buildup of periodontal pathogens along the gumline.

5. Dry Mouth/Mouth Breathing at Night

Breathing through the mouth can dry out the gums and tissues that line the mouth. This dryness changes the natural bacteria in your child’s mouth and can cause tooth decay and gum disease. Not only that but breathing through the mouth for long periods can also lead to other health issues. So if your child mostly breathes through their mouth and not their nose, especially while sleeping, it might be good to check with their kids’ dentist or pediatrician to see if a more significant concern exists. 

6. Baby Bottle Decay

We’ve already touched on this one a bit, but avoid giving your child a bottle at bedtime. And if you give your baby or toddler juice, be sure to run a clean damp cloth over their teeth and gums afterward to remove any remaining sugary liquid that might remain.

7. Indigestion and Acid Reflux

When stomach acid makes its way into the mouth, it wears down tooth enamel, which is called tooth erosion. Without this protective layer of strong enamel, your child’s teeth are at an increased risk for decay, caries (cavity), sensitivity, and discoloration.

8. Eating Disorders, such as Anorexia and Bulimia 

Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorders, negatively affect the entire body, including the mouth. Symptoms vary and can range from slight to severe. In most cases, your kids’ dentist will be among the first to identify possible red flags, including tooth enamel erosion, dry mouth, enlarged salivary glands, mouth sores, cracked/dry lips, tooth decay, bruising to the mouth, and sensitive teeth.

10. Poor Nutrition 

A healthy, nutrient-rich diet will help your child maintain strong teeth. A poor diet directly encourages tooth decay through the sugars and starches that support the growth of plaque bacteria. This bacteria eventually eats away at the enamel, leading to cavities in your child’s mouth.

What are the signs and symptoms of tooth decay?

Be on the lookout for the following signs or symptoms of tooth decay in your child’s mouth. And if you see one or more of these signs, it is time to request an appointment with a pediatric dental care office near you.

  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Toothache or pain that occurs without any obvious cause
  • Mild to sharp pain when your child eats or drinks something sweet, hot, or cold
  • Brown, black, or white staining on the surface of their teeth
  • Pain when they bite down
  • Visible holes or pits in their teeth

Prevent tooth decay with regular visits to a pediatric dentist near you.

One of the best ways to prevent or treat tooth decay is by bringing your child to a pediatric dentist every six months. Your child should have their first dental visit by their first birthday. Regular trips to the dentist help alleviate dental anxiety in kids and help set the stage for good oral health. If you and your family live in the Waldorf, Maryland, area, request an appointment with We Make Kids Smile. We look forward to meeting you and your child and making tooth decay a thing of the past.

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Prince Frederick

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Prince Frederick, MD 20678


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