San Diego, CA – You’ve probably heard your child’s dentist tell you about the importance of fluoride in keeping a smile healthy. But do you really know what fluoride is or how it helps?
Fluoride is a naturally occurring element that is found in the Earth’s crust. It exists in many water sources, and can help prevent and even reverse tooth decay. And that’s important, especially for children, as childhood dental caries are currently the number one chronic childhood condition.
“Tooth decay is a very serious issue affecting our children today,” says San Diego pediatric dentist Dr. Santiago Surillo. “Tooth decay occurs when the sugars from the food we eat interacts with the bacteria in our mouths to create acid. This acid then attacks our teeth, weakening the enamel and leading to decay. But fluoride can help protect our teeth.”
Fluoride works not just to protect the surface of our teeth, but when ingested, it can also incorporate into the structure of developing teeth, making them stronger. Fluoride intake is most important between the ages of six months and 16 years. This is when the primary and permanent teeth come in, and when they need the most protection.
Studies show that fluoride can help reduce decay by as much as 40 percent. For more than 50 years, it has been proven safe and effective in fighting decay, and can now be found in more than 60 percent of America’s water supply. It is so important that one study showed that for every dollar local communities spend on adding fluoride to their water supplies, families can save $38 in dental treatments.
For additional protection, fluoride is also found in toothpastes, mouthwashes, and special tooth washes, gels and foams. These additional sources are great for people living in areas without fluoridated water, and people who need extra protection.
But how does fluoride actually work to protect teeth?
“It actually can help in two ways,” says Dr. Surillo. “First it is very important for children in the years where their teeth are still forming. When ingested through their food and water source, it actually becomes a part of the tooth structure, strengthening the teeth. This then means your saliva can keep your teeth bathed in fluoride, helping stave off decay.”
The other way fluoride works is by repairing and restoring your enamel. Cavities form when your tooth enamel loses minerals due to acid attacks. When fluoride is present, though, it can actually work to re-mineralize your teeth, virtually reversing early stages of dental decay.
There are, however, opponents of fluoride use. Some people question its effectiveness and safety, but study after study has continually shown it is safe. In fact, in the past 30 years we’ve seen dramatic decreases in tooth decay, which has been attributed to fluoridated water supplies. The American Dental Association endorses community water fluoridation. However, it is important to follow your dentist’s recommendations for fluoride use. If your dentist has not recommended fluoride supplements, do not add them without asking first.
Overexposure to fluoride before the age of eight has been shown to lead to enamel fluorosis, a condition that results in discoloration of the teeth. If you are concerned about your child’s fluoride intake, speak with your dentist.
Parents should carefully supervise their children when using products that contain fluoride. Children should not use fluoride toothpaste until the age of three, or when they are able to properly spit on their own.
“Fluoride has numerous benefits to our teeth,” says Dr. Surillo. “But as with anything else, too much of a good thing is simply too much. It is pretty difficult to reach hazardous levels of fluoride exposure, but we still encourage parents to closely watch and assist their children when using additional fluoride supplements and fluoride toothpastes.”
It’s also important to note that if your family mainly consumes bottled water, you may be missing out on the important benefits that fluoridated water offer. Bottled waters contain varying levels of fluoride, so be sure to check the packaging and ask your dentist what is the right level for your family.
Fluoride is a natural way to strengthen teeth and prevent decay. Tooth decay is the most common chronic health problem affecting American children, and is five times more common than asthma. Ensuring the proper levels of fluoride is a great way to safeguard your children’s oral health.