Brush Away Tooth Decay

It’s February! The family diet is no longer dominated by the roasted meat and starchy sides of holiday meals. The holiday sweets supply is nearly gone. For dental health professionals, February is an especially important month for children’s teeth, and that’s not because of Valentine’s Day! February marks National Children’s Dental Health Month, an annual campaign by the American Dental Association to raise awareness about the importance of oral health and hygiene. That means it’s time to talk seriously about your kids’ mouths.


Regular reinforcement of good oral health habits translates into better overall health throughout a child’s entire life. Yes, that means brushing twice a day for two minutes and flossing at least once daily. It also means delving deeper into what causes tooth decay in children, because what they put into their mouths affects their oral health just as much as how well they keep their teeth clean.


Soda, sugary beverages and sports drinks are contributing to an increase in tooth decay. Even with regular brushing and flossing, both diet soda and regular soda can break down the enamel of teeth.


Parents should take heed. Children between the ages of 8 and 17 are at the greatest risk for tooth decay from consuming acidic, sugar-rich soft drinks because the enamel protecting their teeth hasn’t yet fully developed. In fact, tooth decay is the single most common chronic childhood disease according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, more than 51 million school hours are lost by children each year due to dental-related problems – many that are preventable.


Despite these statistics, more and more children and teens have come to consider drinking soda and other soft drinks to be a regular part of their daily routine. The average American child consumes approximately two 12-ounce cans of soft drinks every day, according to a study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. This amounts to 20 teaspoons of sugar each day. That’s nearly twice the recommended limit a child should consume.


When you eat anything, especially foods rich in sugar like soft drinks, the bacteria that are already present in your mouth convert the sugar in food into acids. Those acids attack enamel on your teeth, which can cause permanent damage. The more you eat or drink sugary foods and beverages, and the longer sugars remain in your mouth before you brush your teeth, the greater your risk for tooth decay. It takes as little as 20 minutes for these acids to begin to form and do damage. The carbonation and acid in these drinks alone can weaken and permanently destroy enamel as well, resulting in discoloration, sensitivity and cracks or chips. So sugar-free and diet sodas aren’t necessarily a better choice overall.


It’s not just the sugar and acid content in soft drinks that are negatively impacting children’s teeth. It’s the frequency in which little bicuspids and canines are exposed to the beverages throughout the day. Sipping a bottle of soda or sports drink over several hours leaves little time for the mouth to correct its pH level with saliva, which is important for protecting teeth against decay. Since most kids do not typically brush or rinse their mouths during school hours, nursing these types of drinks throughout classes allows them to do what they do best to teeth – break down enamel and cause cavities.


Despite the ubiquity of soda and sport drinks in our lives, there are a few concerted efforts that parents can make to help kids maintain a healthy mouth. First, make water, milk and 100-percent juice the beverages of choice in your home. It’s true that fruit juice and milk contain natural sugars, but they are also nutritious. Accompanied with good brushing habits, it’s fine to drink both within recommended amounts. It’s also a good idea to follow up a glass of milk or juice with a drink or rinse of water to flush excess sugars out of the mouth. If consuming sugar-rich drinks is unavoidable, make a small investment in straws. Straws direct beverages to the back of the mouth, limiting the amount of time the beverage is in contact with a child’s teeth. Not only are straws healthful tools, but they’re fun!


Parents should also consider sending children to school with a durable water bottle. Kids can fill it up throughout the day and won’t need to purchase an additional beverage at the vending machine. Water is the all-around best choice not only for your mouth, but for the whole body, with benefits ranging from regulating body temperature, losing weight and staying alert and energized.


The oral health of your kids should be a priority all year long, but National Children’s Dental Health Month is a great time for teaching your kids about how the beverages they drink and foods they eat affect their teeth. It’s also an opportunity to inject some fun into home dental hygiene habits and renew a true commitment to regular dental checkups.


Anthony Giamberardino, D.M.D., a general dentist, is the president of the Massachusetts Dental Society. To learn more about issues affecting children’s dental health, visit

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26 Jan 2015

By Anthony Giamberardino, D.M.D.