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Dental Health and Fluoride Treatment

Fluoride is a mineral that occurs naturally in many foods and water. Every day, minerals are added to and lost from a tooth’s enamel layer through two processes, demineralization and remineralization. Minerals are lost (demineralization) from a tooth’s enamel layer when acids — usually formed from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth — attack the enamel. Minerals such as fluoride, calcium, and phosphate are redeposited (remineralization) to the enamel layer from the foods and waters consumed. Too much demineralization without enough remineralization to repair the enamel layer can lead to tooth decay.Fluoride can help prevent tooth decay by making the tooth more resistant to acid attacks from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth. In children under 6 years of age, fluoride becomes incorporated into the development of permanent teeth. Fluoride also helps speed remineralization as well as disrupts acid production in already erupted teeth of both children and adults.

In What Forms Is Fluoride Available?

As mentioned, fluoride is found in foods and in water. It can also be directly applied to the teeth through fluoridated toothpaste and mouth rinses. Mouth rinses containing fluoride in lower strengths are available over-the-counter; stronger concentrations require a doctor’s prescription.

A dental professional can also apply fluoride to the teeth as a gel, foam, or varnish. These treatments contain a much higher level of fluoride than the amount found in toothpaste and mouth rinses. Varnishes are painted on the teeth; foams are put into a tray, which is applied to the teeth for one to four minutes; gels can be painted on or applied via a tray.

When Is Fluoride Intake Most Critical?

It is certainly important for infants and children between the ages of 6 months and 16 years to be exposed to fluoride. This is the timeframe during which the primary and permanent teeth come in. However, adults benefit from fluoride, too. New research indicates that topical fluoride — from toothpaste, mouth rinses, and fluoride treatments — are as important in fighting tooth decay as in strengthening developing teeth.

In addition, people with certain conditions may be at increased risk of tooth decay and would therefore benefit from additional fluoride treatment. They include people with:

  • Dry mouth conditions: Also called xerostomia, dry mouth can be caused by diseases such as Sjögren’s syndrome, certain medications, and mouth breathing. The lack of saliva makes it harder for food particles to be washed away and acids to be neutralized.
  • Gum disease: Gum disease, also called periodontitis, can expose more of your tooth and tooth roots to bacteria increasing the chance of tooth decay. Gingivitis is an early stage of periodontitis.
  • History of frequent cavities: If you have one cavity every year or every other year, you might benefit from additional fluoride.

Ask your dentist if you could benefit from additional fluoride.

Are There Risks Associated With Fluoride Use?

Fluoride is safe and effective when used as directed but can be hazardous at high doses. For this reason, it’s important for parents to carefully supervise their children’s use of fluoride-containing products and to keep fluoride products out of reach of children, especially children under the age of 6.

In addition, excess fluoride can cause defects in the tooth’s enamel that range from barely noticeable white specks or streaks to cosmetically objectionable brown discolouration. These defects are known as fluorosis and occur when the teeth are forming — usually in children younger than 6 years. Fluorosis, when it occurs, is usually associated with naturally occurring fluoride, such as that found in well water. If you use well water and are uncertain about the mineral (especially fluoride) content, a water sample should be tested. Although tooth staining from fluorosis cannot be removed with normal hygiene, your dentist may be able to lighten or remove these stains with professional-strength abrasives or bleaches.

Keep in mind, however, that it’s very difficult to reach hazardous levels given the low levels of fluoride in home-based fluoride-containing products. Nonetheless, if you do have concerns or questions about the amount of fluoride you or your child may be receiving, talk to your child’s dentist, pediatrician, or family doctor.A few useful reminders about fluoride include:

  • Store fluoride supplements away from young children.
  • Avoid flavoured toothpaste because these tend to encourage toothpaste to be swallowed.
  • Use only a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste on a child’s toothbrush.