Fluoride is the most effective agent available to help prevent tooth decay. It is a mineral that is naturally present in varying amounts in almost all foods and water supplies. The benefits of fluoride have been well known for over 50 years and are supported by many health and professional organizations.
Why is fluoride important?
Every day, a tooth’s enamel (the outer layer that makes a tooth hard) has minerals both added to it (remineralization) and removed from it (demineralization). During remineralization, minerals such as fluoride, calcium, and phosphate are added to the enamel layer via foods and drinks that contain these minerals. Minerals are lost (demineralization) when acids—from bacteria in the mouth and certain foods and drinks—attack the enamel. Tooth decay results when the enamel loses more minerals than it receives.
How does fluoride prevent tooth decay?
Fluoride helps to prevent tooth decay by making the tooth more resistant to acid attacks. Fluoride also helps to speed remineralization of erupted teeth in both children and adults.
Where is fluoride found?
Although some foods, such as seafood and certain teas, naturally contain fluoride, the primary source of fluoride is drinking water. Tap water in most cities in the United States contains fluoride. Some, but not all, bottled waters contain fluoride. Fluoride also can be applied directly to teeth through toothpastes and mouth rinses that contain fluoride. You can buy these products at most pharmacies and grocery stores. Dentists can also apply fluoride directly to your teeth in the form of a gel, foam, or varnish. These products contain a much higher level of fluoride than toothpastes and mouth rinses.
When should fluoride use begin?
Infants and children between the ages of 6 months and 16 years should receive fluoride. Their primary teeth and permanent teeth develop during these ages, so the stronger their enamel is, the better. Because most children receive their first permanent teeth at around age 6, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends prescribing fluoride supplements for children between the ages of 6 and 16 who are at high risk for dental caries and whose community water source is less than optimal. In areas that have minimal fluoride in the water, fluoride supplementation may begin earlier. Although fluoride is an immediate concern for children and adolescents, adults also can benefit from fluoride. Topical fluoride— including toothpastes, mouth rinses, and fluoride treatments—is as important for fighting tooth decay in adults as it is for strengthening the teeth of children.
When is additional fluoride necessary?
Additional fluoride treatment can benefit children and adults with certain oral conditions, including dry mouth, gum disease, and cavities. Dry mouth makes an individual more prone to tooth decay because the decreased saliva production makes it harder to wash away food particles and thus decrease the cavity-causing acids. Gum disease can expose more of the tooth and tooth roots to bacteria, increasing the chance of tooth decay. Patients who have many cavities and develop new ones each year may benefit from additional fluoride treatment. Additional fluoride might also be appropriate for patients with crowns, bridges, and braces, as the portion of the tooth that isn’t covered by a crown, bridge, or brace may be at greater risk for tooth decay.
To find out if you and/or your children are receiving enough fluoride or should consider fluoride treatment or supplements, ask Dr. Covington. He or she may prescribe fluoride supplements (in liquid or pill form) or offer suggestions for increasing the amount of fluoride you receive.
Fluoride works in two ways:
Topical fluoride strengthens the teeth once they have erupted by seeping into the outer surface of the tooth enamel, making the teeth more resistant to decay. We gain topical fluoride by using fluoride containing dental products such as toothpaste, mouth rinses, and gels. Dentists and dental hygienists generally recommend that children have a professional application of fluoride twice a year during dental check-ups.
Systemic fluoride strengthens the teeth that have erupted as well as those that are developing under the gums. We gain systemic fluoride from most foods and our community water supplies. It is also available as a supplement in drop or gel form and can be prescribed by Dr. Covington or your family physician. Generally, fluoride drops are recommended for infants, and tablets are best suited for children up through the teen years. It is very important to monitor the amounts of fluoride a child ingests. If too much fluoride is consumed while the teeth are developing, a condition called fluorosis (white spots on the teeth) may result.
Although most people receive fluoride from food and water, sometimes it is not enough to help prevent decay. Dr. Covington or the dental hygienist may recommend the use of home and/or professional fluoride treatments for the following reasons:
Deep pits and fissures on the chewing surfaces of teeth.
Exposed and sensitive root surfaces.
Fair to poor oral hygiene habits.
Frequent sugar and carbohydrate intake.
Inadequate exposure to fluorides.
Inadequate saliva flow due to medical conditions, medical treatments or medications.
Recent history of dental decay.
Remember, fluoride alone will not prevent tooth decay! It is important to brush at least twice a day, floss regularly, eat balanced meals, reduce sugary snacks, and visit your dentist on a regular basis.