Once upon a time, if your child was prone to tooth decay, there was little you could do but hope teeth wouldn’t develop cavities too quickly… and have them treated and filled as soon as they did. Worse yet, this might happen even if your child brushed and flossed every day. Today, there’s a much better solution for kids who have an increased risk of cavities: It involves placing special coatings, called dental sealants, on the vulnerable teeth. What are sealants – and how do they protect against tooth decay?
Dental sealants are thin coatings of plastic resin which are applied to the chewing surfaces of the molars (back teeth). If you run a finger along these surfaces, you will notice they are far from smooth; instead, these surfaces are covered with tiny ridges and depressions called “pits and fissures.” Their rough texture helps the teeth process food – but the warm, moist crevices found here also provide the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. Your toothbrush often just glides right over these nooks and crannies, leaving bacteria undisturbed – including the bacteria responsible for tooth decay.
Sealants work by filling in the deeper pits and protecting the vulnerable surfaces of molars, making it much harder for bacteria to cling to teeth. They aren’t a substitute for brushing with fluoride toothpaste; however, a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General noted that, in conjunction with brushing and flossing, sealants are a safe and effective means of preventing tooth decay – the number-one chronic disease in both children and adults.
From a parent’s perspective, sealants are a terrific way to prevent cavities before they get started. This can greatly reduce the lost time and expense involved in a child’s restorative dental work. For a kid, the best part may be that the process itself is normally quick and pain-free: It doesn’t routinely involve a numbing shot or extensive drilling, as a cavity would. Here’s how it is done:
After an examination, if any minimal decay is found, it can often be removed painlessly, without the need for anesthesia. Then, the tooth is cleaned and dried. Next, an etching gel is used to slightly roughen the surface that will receive the sealant. Finally, the liquid sealant itself is painted onto the tooth; it cures (hardens) in a minute or two, sometimes with the aid of a special light. And that’s it. It takes about five minutes per tooth, and can be expected to last 5 to 10 years.
Sealants may not be needed for every child – and they aren’t a substitute for a complete program of oral hygiene (including daily brushing and flossing, and regular exams and cleanings). However, they are extremely effective at preventing cavities that form in the pits and fissures. Best of all, this relatively inexpensive treatment can help lead to a lifetime of good checkups and bright smiles.