More than 750 children, mainly under age 4, visit the operating room at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital yearly due to a cause that can be prevented: cavities.
“It is not unusual for us to take a patient 12 months of age to the operating room that has already been affected by cavities,” said Dr. Rosie Roldan, director of the pediatric dental center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
Parents, often believing that baby teeth are just going to fall out, may not place a high priority on their care. But baby teeth are the space holders for permanent teeth, Roldan said. What parents may not know is that cavities are contagious. If there are cavities in the baby teeth, chances are that you may have cavities in the permanent teeth.
The permanent teeth of an adult are very important in maintaining good physical health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of all U.S. adults have untreated tooth decay. And studies have shown that people with periodontal disease have higher incidences of certain diseases, including breast cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Parents can get a jump start by protecting a baby’s teeth. Doctors recommend that children visit a dentist at 12 months of age, Roldan said. The child can be placed on a preventive plan to avoid or forestall cavities until the child can be treated in the dental chair instead of the operating room.
Infants and toddlers under age 3 are treated in the operating room for cavities because they can’t sit still for a dentist to use a hand tool.
But parents can follow some tips to prevent cavities from occurring in a child. Roldan suggests that parents limit the frequency that a child’s teeth are exposed to sugar or carbohydrates, which cause bacteria to reproduce, ferment and cause acid that can lead to cavities.
“Some kids walk around with their bottle or sippy cup all day long and they just sip a little at a time,” Roldan said. “What they are doing is constantly bathing their teeth in sugar or carbohydrates and feeding the bacteria.”
Roldan recommends decreasing the frequency of snacks or candy. Allow a child to eat candy or have a dessert after a meal and then wait a couple of hours until the acid levels in a child’s mouth decrease before allowing the child to eat more candy.
Parents should also give water to a child instead of juices, sport drinks or other sugary beverages, Roldan said. Kids should also drink tap water instead of bottled water, which often does not contain fluoride, a compound that can reduce tooth decay.
Cutting back on snacks and sugary drinks will not only help a child’s teeth but can prevent children from becoming overweight or obese, Roldan said.
The health of the child’s family is also a concern, Roldan said. Since cavities are contagious, the bacteria behind them can be transferred through eating utensils, toys placed in the mouth of a family member with cavities or cleaning a pacifier with the mouth.
“Chances are if the siblings or parents have cavities, the child will, too,” Roldan said.
Adults can also take steps to become proactive in their oral health. Studies have shown that adults who followed government recommendations for physical activity were also less likely to have periodontal disease.
Mostly seen in adults, periodontal disease is the result of infection and inflammation of the gums, according to the CDC. In its early stage, called gingivitis, the gums can become swollen and red and may bleed. In its more serious form, called periodontosis, the gums can pull away from the tooth, bone can be lost, and the teeth may loosen or even fall out.
According to the CDC, nearly 50 percent of adults 30 years and older have periodontal disease in the United States. That number increases with age, with 70 percent of adults 65 and older having the disease.
“Periodontal disease is called the silent disease because you might not even know that you have it,” said Dr. David Genet, a periodontist with a practice in Aventura. “You might not get symptoms initially. By the time that you do, often the periodontal disease has gotten to a very severe form, which makes it hard to treat.”
Patients with diabetes may be more prone to infections due to the higher levels of glucose causing a weakened immune system, said Dr. Melissa Franco, a Baptist Health Medical Group physician. This can result in more inflammation, gum disease or cavities.
There are also certain medications that can predispose people to have more of a dry mouth, Franco said. With the loss of saliva, more bacteria will form in the mouth and can predispose someone to having more dental and gum disease. Stress can also be a risk factor due to inflammation increasing when a person is under strain.
To maintain good oral health, brush twice a day and floss once or twice daily, Genet said. Also, regularly visit a dentist and, if appropriate, a periodontist who can discover periodontal disease early enough to prevent it from becoming more advanced.
Research also shows that exercise, maintaining healthy eating habits and cardiovascular health also helps fight gum disease. One should strive to exercise three to five days a week for about 30-45 minutes, or a weekly total of 150 minutes, Genet said.
Genet noted that studies have shown that levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for blood-vessel inflammation, decrease in people who have had adequate exercise. Lower inflammation means a person reduces his or her risk for inflammatory periodontal disease.
“Oral health is definitely a part of a patient’s health,” Franco said. “People look at it separately, medical health and dental health. They are very much linked together.”