How to Prevent Early Childhood Caries

Early childhood caries (ECC) is a chronic infectious disease that affects young children. Dental caries is the technical term for oral cavities or tooth decay. When a child younger than 6 years old has one or more missing or decayed teeth (due to caries) or any primary teeth with a filling, he or she is considered to have ECC.

You might think the problem will disappear once your child’s baby teeth fall out, but ECC should not be ignored. The most obvious symptoms of ECC are pain and infection in the mouth and teeth, but if left untreated, ECC can affect a child’s ability to speak, eat, sleep, play and more. The negative effects of ECC can last well into a child’s teen years—and beyond.

What precautions can you take to prevent ECC? First, know that ECC is caused by bacteria on the teeth that metabolize sugars in food debris to form acid that erodes the enamel and causes caries. Pay attention to what your child eats and drinks. Food and drink, especially sugary liquids like juice, soft drinks, starches and milk, should be consumed in a single meal before nap or bedtime rather than at will.

Breastfeeding at night after your child’s first teeth emerge can also increase the risk of ECC. Ideally, your child should start using a cup by the time he or she turns 1 year old. Once you make the switch, make sure your child isn’t drinking at will from a training cup. You should also clean your infant’s teeth after all meals—liquid or solid. Proper home care is a must.

ECC is a serious and growing problem. An estimated 5% of American children under the age of 6 get severe forms of the disease. An additional 15% suffer from a weaker version. This high incidence is almost certainly linked to the fact that half of all American children never visit the dentist.

Our dental staff is an invaluable ally in the fight against ECC. Make sure you schedule your child’s first dental visit within six months of the emergence of his or her first tooth (or no later than age 1). At your appointment, we can provide you with the information you need to help reduce your child’s risk for ECC.

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When Your Child Has Stained or Discolored Teeth

One day, you notice that your child’s teeth look significantly yellow or brown. You are pretty sure your child is not drinking tons of coffee or tea on the sly. So what gives? Children’s teeth can darken from eating certain foods or from inadequate toothbrushing. As parents, do not dismiss this issue as simply cosmetic or superficial; there may be underlying health issues that need to be addressed. And if your child is not proud of his or her teeth, it may result in social problems: fewer smiles, social aversion and hesitation to make friends.

Many causes of tooth discoloration in children exist, some more easily addressed than others. Two of the more solvable situations are

  • Beverage offenders. True, children do not usually drink coffee or tea. But many drink soda, which is full of enamel-eroding acids. Tooth erosion leaves surface areas more susceptible to discoloration by brown cola and root beer ingredients. Fruit juices—especially darker ones like grape—can stain teeth, too. The solution: Drink fewer of these drinks, and only sip them through a straw. Also, heed beverage temperatures: A drink that is too hot or too cold opens the “pores” of teeth, making for easier staining. We’re looking at you, hot chocolate.
  • Food offenders. Your child loves blueberries, fresh tomato sauce or beets—all full of wonderfully healthy compounds. But you should know that even nutrient-packed foods, if dark, can stain teeth. The solution: Have your child rinse and/or brush soon after consuming any dark food, from cherries to soy sauce.

Other causes of tooth stains and discoloration that are more serious include

  • Tooth decay. This issue requires immediate treatment.
  • Iron. Contained in some children’s multivitamins, this mineral may cause a dark stain on teeth.
  • Medications. Certain antibiotics and antihistamines can lead to tooth discoloration.
  • Excess fluoride consumption (fluorosis). Visible brown spots or white streaks may be treatable with a procedure called overnight vital bleaching.

The two most serious causes of tooth staining are

  • Tooth injury. A gray tooth color may result when the injury reaches the gum.
  • Systemic illness. Heart disease or recurring infections, for example, need immediate attention.

How can you reverse your child’s tooth discoloration? The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry does not recommend commercial whitening strips for children and young teens, because not enough is yet known about their safety in youngsters. However, whitening toothpaste may be a possibility, and we can consider in-office bleaching if there’s a particular reason to reverse staining quickly.

Stained teeth that bother you or your child are our problem, too. Call us for an appointment so we can examine your child’s discolored teeth and determine the best course of action to restore a healthy mouth and bright smile.

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Have You Heard About Ear Infections and Oral Health?

When babies get fussy, it can be difficult to decipher what is bothering them. Two common occurrences during a baby’s first year—teething and ear infections—share many warning signs. Because their symptoms are so similar, many parents wonder if ear infections are somehow linked to their baby’s oral health.

Typically, babies begin to show the first signs of teething between the ages of 4 and 6 months. Classic teething symptoms include a low-grade fever (below 101° Fahrenheit), excessive fussiness or irritability, drooling, tender gums, difficulty sleeping and, more confusingly, pulling on the ears. While such pulling may seem to be an obvious ear pain-related issue, many babies pull on their ears because of nearby pain in the gums or jaw.

Your teething baby may also experience similar symptoms at the onset of an ear infection; however, a key difference is the occurrence of cold-like symptoms. For instance, unlike teething, an ear infection is usually accompanied by a runny nose and a higher fever.

While these dental and aural issues seem to be associated with one another, they are generally unrelated. Unlike teething, ear infections are typically caused by bacteria. Babies may have an increased risk of developing ear infections from exposure to bacteria on their pacifiers. To avoid this, make sure to keep your child’s pacifier clean.

Is your baby showing signs of teething? We can recommend at-home soothing techniques. Should the symptoms appear more in line with those of an ear infection, or if your baby develops a fever of 101° Fahrenheit or higher, contact your child’s pediatrician right away. Your baby may need an antibiotic to help fight the infection.

Whether you believe your child is suffering from teething pain, an earache or both, pay attention to changes in your baby’s behavior and to any signs of discomfort. Because it can be difficult to tell the difference, call our office; we can offer advice. And remember, regular dental care, starting from a young age, helps ensure a healthy, pain-free mouth.

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Detecting Plaque at Home

Comprised of bacteria, plaque is a sticky film that clings to your teeth. Although it forms on teeth daily, plaque can be removed by brushing and flossing. When it is not cleared away, however, it can harden and turn into tartar. Once tartar forms, only a professional cleaning treatment can get rid of it.

If not properly taken care of, plaque and tartar can damage your child’s teeth, gums and jawbone. To help your child maintain good oral health at home between regular visits, it is important to learn to detect and remove plaque buildup before tartar forms.

While brushing and flossing are the easiest ways to keep plaque from accumulating, many children—and adults, too—do not know how to get rid of it properly. Luckily, various solutions are available at your supermarket or pharmacy that can help you and your child detect plaque at home:

  • Disclosing solutions and tablets: These products have safe and effective dyes that stain plaque on teeth red and blue. One product even does both, staining new plaque red and old plaque blue to help identify areas your child continues to miss while brushing. The dyes easily wash away.
  • Blue light plaque-disclosing systems: These virtually invisible plaque-disclosing systems may be good for children who are frightened by turning their teeth blue or red. They use a clear dye that shows plaque buildup under a handheld blue light. Its invisibility, however, may make it more difficult for children to visualize the areas of their mouth that need extra cleaning.

Finding the right solution to your child’s plaque buildup may require some trial and error, but once you find one that works well, its consistent use will help establish better oral habits. While these techniques offer great at-home options, it is also important that you schedule regular cleanings with us to ensure that plaque doesn’t build up in your child’s mouth.

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Navigating a Child’s Root Canal Treatment

Although root canal treatment is more commonly performed on adults, it can be necessary for children, too—in primary as well as permanent teeth. The goal of the procedure is to save a tooth that has been affected by bacterial infection or inflammation. The process involves removing a tooth’s pulp, located beneath the enamel in the tooth’s pulp chamber. Containing blood vessels, nerves and connective tissue, pulp extends through passages—called canals—that lead to the tooth’s roots.

Usually, pulp damage hurts intensely, causing constant, throbbing pain. Other symptoms include nighttime pain, sensitivity to food temperatures and inflammation around the tooth. Our job is to identify the cause and determine the best course of treatment, which may be a root canal.

What happens during a root canal procedure? We save the tooth by using extremely small instruments to remove some or all of its infected or damaged pulp. Damage sources include injury (e.g., being hit by a ball), decay, inflammation or bacterial infection. We replace the affected pulp with sterile filler to prevent the damage from spreading further and to help the tooth function normally.

After the tooth’s pulp is removed, we sterilize and fill the empty space with either a material the body can eventually absorb (for a baby tooth), or cannot absorb (for a permanent tooth). We may apply a crown for further protection against decay and tooth fracture.

You may wonder: Why perform root canal therapy on a baby tooth when it will eventually fall out anyway? Baby teeth actually serve many purposes—chewing, obviously; aiding in proper speech development; and maintaining the alignment of future permanent teeth. If a space exists where there should not be one, the remaining baby teeth may shift to close the gap, affecting the positioning of future adult teeth.

Exceptions exist, however, when extraction may be a better option than root canal for a baby tooth (keeping in mind a child’s age and overall health, for instance). In the case of a damaged permanent tooth, we will consider all available options, including root canal, to save rather than extract the tooth.

No lingering tooth pain should be ignored. Call us right away if your child is experiencing persistent discomfort. We will do all we can to save the natural tooth and alleviate pain.

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Take the Scary Out of Dental Visits

Everyone—you, your child, our staff—wins when a young patient climbs into our dental chair, happy and carefree, without fear that this visit might hurt or be scary. For a quick and comfortable visit, ensure that your little one doesn’t form any negative notions beforehand about going to the dentist. We will do our part to make the experience a good one by being friendly, gentle and accommodating. With your help, a trip to our office can be anxiety-free for both you and your child. Here are some tips to make the visit a success:

  • Watch your words. In discussing dental visits, utilize a positive vocabulary. Include phrases such as “Check your smile,” “Keep your mouth healthy” and “Count your teeth.” Don’t let “hurt,” “pain” or even “ouchie” escape your lips.
  • Be an early bird. Bring your child to see us when his or her first tooth emerges or around age 1. Getting your child accustomed to our office and associating it with a harmless routine will create a good attitude about dental visits.
  • Tell the truth. Give honest answers to questions about dental visits, but keep details minimal. We can provide age-appropriate, nonthreatening answers—we’re trained to do so, and we’ve had a lot of practice.
  • Read all about it. Characters from children’s television shows and picture books, such as Elmo, Arthur, Dora the Explorer and the Berenstain Bears, often appear in fun, educational storylines that involve dental visits.
  • Make it fun. Try playing dentist with your child. Take turns counting each other’s teeth while using a compact mirror, or recruit some stuffed animals or dolls to join the activity.
  • Be self-aware. Leave your child with another adult when you have a dental appointment. Your perceptive son or daughter will easily sense any anxiety you might have and link fear with dental visits.
  • Think like a child. If you tell your youngster you’ll offer a reward in some way if he or she is good and doesn’t cry at the dentist, your child will probably come to a single conclusion: “Something is going to happen to make me cry.” Avoid any discussion of prizes or bribes.

Want more ideas on how to calm your child’s dental anxiety? Call our office any time. We’ll be happy to share advice with you on how to help your child feel more relaxed and happy at his or her next visit. When we all work together, dental appointments can be a stress-free breeze.

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