Young girl visiting the dentist.

What You Need to Know About Childhood Cavities

February 16, 2022

Originally published July 2020. Updated February 2021.

Tooth decay can occur at any age — even in children! In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), tooth decay is the most common chronic disease of childhood, with cavities being 4x more common than childhood asthma and 3x more likely than childhood obesity.

Tooth decay, or cavities, is the most common chronic disease in childhood.

Unfortunately, if left untreated, childhood cavities can cause several other issues, both now and in the long term. From pain and infection to difficulty eating, irregular tooth development, overbites, and speech problems, cavities and tooth decay can greatly affect the quality of your children’s life— and their learning too! The CDC even notes that children with poor oral health miss more school and receive lower grades than children with good oral health.

The good news is that childhood tooth decay is largely preventable. And by knowing the causes of cavities, practicing proper at-home care, and scheduling regular visits to the dentist, you can drastically reduce your child’s risk of developing a cavity.

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What Causes Cavities in Children?

According to the AAPD, one in five children has had tooth decay by kindergarten and more than half have had cavities by age eight. While these statistics make cavities and tooth decay the most common oral health issues for children in the country, you might be wondering, “Is there really much harm if baby teeth aren’t permanent?”

The answer is yes! Cavities and tooth decay in children can cause a wide range of issues, including:

  • Pain and infection
  • Damage to permanent teeth
  • Gum disease in later life
  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Malnutrition
  • Speech problems
  • Problems in school
  • Reluctance to speak, smile, and play
  • Low self-esteem

You can help prevent childhood cavities and childhood tooth decay by introducing good oral hygiene habits early on, but it’s also important to recognize the causes and risk factors in order to be proactive about your children’s oral health.

You can help prevent childhood cavities and childhood tooth decay by introducing good oral hygiene habits early on, but it’s also important to recognize the causes and risk factors in order to be proactive about your children’s oral health.

Some common causes of childhood cavities include:

Inadequate Brushing and Flossing

Brushing twice and flossing at least once each day is important for kids and adults alike. These daily habits are especially important before bedtime to eliminate the bacteria that build up during the day.

Caregivers should first begin cleaning an infant’s gums with a soft infant toothbrush, a cloth and water, or a finger brush. Brushing should begin once the child’s first tooth appears, while flossing should start as soon as they have two teeth that touch, usually between the ages of 2 and 6 years old.

It’s recommended that you oversee your child’s brushing and flossing until they reach around 10 years old and can demonstrate proper technique on their own.

Using the Wrong Amount or Type of Toothpaste

For children under the age of 2 who have their first erupted tooth, the ADA recommends a “smear” of toothpaste, roughly around the length of a grain of rice. This age group can either use a fluoride-free toothpaste, specifically made for children under two years old, or they can use a fluoride toothpaste. A pea-sized amount is recommended for kids between the ages of 3 to 6 years old.

Fluoride toothpaste helps strengthen enamel and inhibits the loss of minerals in the teeth; however, it is important to use the smallest suggested amount to ensure your child doesn’t accidentally swallow any.

Fluoride is commonly found in drinking water and has been shown to lower tooth decay rates by 25%, according to the ADA. If you live in an area where fluoride isn’t in the water, ask your dentist if fluoride supplements might be right for your child.

Too Many Sugary or Starchy Foods and Drinks

Diet plays a huge role in the health of children’s teeth and gums — and people who consume more sugary foods have a higher risk of developing cavities. This is because bacteria in the mouth (plaque) feeds on the simple sugars and starches in sweet treats and other highly processed foods, which creates an acid that weakens tooth enamel.

It’s important to feed your children a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting snacks such as cookies, candy, soda, and chips. If your child uses a bottle or sippy cup at bedtime, opt to fill it with water instead of sugary juice or formula.

Irregular Trips to the Dentist

It should come as no surprise that regular trips to the dentist are incredibly important for children’s dental health.

Your child’s first visit to the dentist should come after the first tooth appears, but no later than their first birthday. Regular follow up exams should be scheduled every 6 months. These preventive visits will help eliminate the buildup of plaque and tartar that lead to cavities and the need for extensive treatments later on. It also helps your child develop good dental health habits that they can carry with them into adolescence and adulthood.

Symptoms of Childhood Cavities

As a parent or caregiver, it’s important to stay on top of your children’s oral health so that if problems do arise, they can be addressed as early as possible. While signs of cavities may be different depending on the child, there are some common symptoms to look for:

  • Pain around the tooth and gums when eating or brushing
  • Sensitivity to hot or cold food or drinks
  • Sensitivity to sweet foods
  • Consistent bad breath
  • White spots on the teeth
  • Holes or discoloration (Cavities in their early stages will often appear as white spots, then become a light brown color as they progress. More serious cavities may turn a dark brown or even black)

If your child is showing any of the above, you should schedule a visit with their dentist as soon as possible.

Treatment Options for Childhood Cavities

If your child does end up getting a cavity, your dentist will typically recommend a direct restoration. Done in a single visit to your dentist’s office, this involves removing the decayed portion of the tooth and replacing it with a filling.

When decay is left untreated for an extensive amount of time, your child might end up needing a crown or root canal, or even having their primary tooth removed with an extraction.

When the permanent molar teeth begin to come in, your child’s dentist might recommend preventing cavities with the placement of sealants on the surface of the molars.

Sealants block bacteria from getting into the deep grooves that toothbrush bristles can’t reach, thereby helping to protect your child from cavities. It’s an easy and painless procedure that takes only a few minutes per tooth, can last for up to 10 years, and is covered for children under most of our plans.

Remember that good dental health takes a combination of proper at-home care, regular visits to the dentist, and addressing issues early. By instilling these habits in your child early, you can help them have a healthy and beautiful smile for a lifetime.

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