Tooth Decay in Kids: Signs of cavities and Treatment Options

Kid in dentist chair

Tooth decay is one of the most common dental-related problems. If left untreated, tooth decay (cavities) can eventually reach the inner pulp of the affected tooth resulting in the need for more extensive treatments. Children are often at increased risk of tooth decay because of poor dietary habits and unmonitored oral hygiene. By detecting cavities early on, treatment is easier and less invasive, which can prevent children’s fear and anxiety when visiting the dentist later on.

What Puts Kids at Risk for Tooth Decay?

There are many factors that put your child at an increased risk of developing cavities. Improper brushing is often the most obvious offender. Many children simply do not know how to brush their teeth properly. Also, they might not have the coordination or precision necessary to reach every single tooth. It’s often recommended to monitor and help your child with their brushing until they’re about six years old.

Another risk factor for children involves their diet. Kids love sugar, and it’s not uncommon for them to want candy, ice cream, and other sweets. The bacteria inside your child’s mouth feed off of these sugars producing a sticky substance known as plaque. The accumulation of bacteria and plaque significantly contributes to tooth decay.

Signs and Symptoms Parents Should Look For

Small children and toddlers often do not know how to convey pain and discomfort. It’s not like an adult who can clearly say, “this tooth is hurting.” Also, the decay usually won’t cause pain until it reaches the inner pulp of the tooth and the damage is more critical. This is why early detection of cavities is so vital to your child’s dental health. Some common symptoms to look for include:

  • White spots on the teeth
  • Dark spots on the teeth
  • Pits or holes in the teeth
  • Fussiness or mood swings
  • Lethargy
  • Avoidance of eating
  • Sensitivity when drinking hot or cold liquids
  • Holding the face or jaw
  • Swelling around the mouth area

As a parent, you also know your child and can tell when something isn’t right. If you’re noticing that your child is acting differently and you suspect a toothache, get them in for a check-up as soon as possible. Catching the cavity early can help to prevent the decay from getting worse and requiring more extensive treatments.

Treatment Options for Pediatric Cavities

pediatric cavities

Dental Fillings

The most common treatment option for a child who has one or more cavities involves dental fillings. Dental fillings are typically made of composite resin, which provides a tooth-colored restoration for your child’s smile. The decay is removed fully from the tooth and a filling put into the small hole that was created. This puts an end to the decay and prevents it from getting worse.

Tooth Extraction

For severe tooth decay, some dentists will recommend completely extracting the tooth, especially if it is a baby tooth. This is typically only done when the decay is severe enough that no other treatment option is available to save the tooth. Early extraction of baby teeth can lead to problems with chewing and eating, as well as orthodontic issues later on.

Pulpotomy

For decay that has been allowed to reach the inner pulp of the tooth, a pulpotomy may be needed. A pulpotomy is slightly different from a root canal, but it is performed in a similar manner and is typically only done on children. Pulpotomies involve removing only a small portion of the inner pulp and placing a medicated packing material inside the tooth before closing it with a tooth-colored filling.

Preventative Treatments

Preventative treatment options include fluoride varnishes and sealants, which can be done in the dental office. Sealants are used to protect the chewing surfaces of the back teeth by creating a clear layer of BPA-free plastic over the grooves and fissures that can be difficult to clean. Fluoride varnishes can be applied to strengthen and protect teeth from decay.

The Importance of Routine Dental Visits

One of the best ways to know if your child has cavities is to bring them to the dentist for a regular dental exam. Check-ups are critical for identifying cavities and providing quick, efficient treatment when it is needed. You should aim to bring your child into the office once every six months for professional cleaning, fluoride treatment application, and an X-ray.

It’s never too early to get your child in for their first dental visit. In fact, many dental professionals recommend that infants come in for their first appointment as soon as their teeth begin to come through the gums. Not only is the dentist able to monitor the growth and development of your child’s smile, but they’ll give you tips on how to practice the best oral hygiene with your child at home.

Prevention of Cavities and Practicing Good Oral Hygiene

The best thing you can do for your child’s dental health is to help them prevent cavities. Talk to your child about the importance of proper oral hygiene and how they should be brushing their teeth. Until your child is about six years old, make it a habit to monitor them while brushing so you can be sure the plaque and bacteria are cleared away.

While cavities are more common among children, they can be prevented altogether using better oral hygiene techniques and preventative measures at the dental office. If you suspect that your child has a cavity, it’s always a good idea to get them checked by scheduling a pediatric dentistry appointment. Helping your children adopt healthy habits early on makes them more likely to care for their teeth as an adult and maintain a full and bright smile for life.

About the Author

Dr. Scott Futch

Dr. Scott F. Futch, DDS

Dr. Scott Futch has been a clinical director for Absolute Dental since April 2017. Dr. Futch graduated from University of Michigan School of Dentistry and completed his training at the Dawson Academy; a postgraduate multi-disciplinary education clinical research facility dedicated to the advancement of dentistry. Dr. Futch has had over 25 years of experience as a skilled clinician, mentor and coach.

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