Cavities and tooth decay are the most common childhood disease in the U.S. Tooth decay is a process that happens over time and can be interrupted or even reversed. Cavities are also entirely preventable.

Widespread tooth decay is present in our country today. It is estimated that 60 percent of children today experience tooth decay. One in five children in the United States will go without dental care, and more than 40 percent of children will have tooth decay by the time they start school.

Children with poor oral health are three times more likely to miss school because of dental pain. Tooth pain can distract students, cause their schoolwork to suffer and lead to school absences.

Every child has bacteria that live in their mouth. There are specific bacteria that use sugar from the food we eat to produce acids. Over time, these acids can eat away at the tooth’s hard surface or enamel causing tooth decay or cavities. Minerals in saliva along with fluoride found in toothpastes and fluoridated water help repair the enamel that’s lost during acid attacks. Teeth go through the process of losing and regaining mineral all day long in a kind of “tug of war.”

There are several things that can help children win the battle against tooth decay.

Drink tap water and use toothpaste with fluoride. The theme for National Children’s Dental Health Month is “Choose Tap Water for a Sparkling Smile.” Drinking water that contains a small amount of fluoride has been shown to prevent 27 percent more cavities in both children and adults. The use of fluoride toothpaste will help strengthen children’s teeth and prevent cavities.

Limit the number of in-between-meal sugary snacks to two a day. Brushing or rinsing children’s mouths after snacks can also limit the duration of acid attacks to their teeth.

Formula, milk and juices all contain some form of sugar. Babies and toddlers are at an increased risk of tooth decay known as “bottle caries.” Infants and toddlers require frequent feedings, which exposes their teeth to a constant bath of sugary substances.

Parents are encouraged to never put their infants to bed or allow them to fall asleep with bottles or sippy cups with liquids that contain sugars. Parents should clean their infant’s teeth with a clean wet washcloth after each feeding whether it’s formula, milk, breast milk or juices. Wiping the teeth after feeding removes the sticky bacteria containing film that can cause decay.

Regular visits to the dentist are also essential in preventing cavities. It is recommended that children have their first dental appointment by 12 months of age. TRICARE dental insurance pays for two exams and teeth cleanings each year.

Tooth brushing is a cost-effective and easy way of preventing cavities. Parents should start to “brush” their children’s teeth as soon as the first tooth erupts into the mouth. Parents should also help or supervise their children’s tooth brushing until age 7 or 8. Adolescents and teens require an occasional spot check.

Use only soft bristled toothbrushes and discard them after three months of use or sooner if the bristles are fraying. Frayed bristles can be harmful to the gums and are not as effective in cleaning.

Below are some tips on toothbrushing that will establish essential oral habits that can last a lifetime.

For ages less than 3 years old, smear a small amount of toothpaste onto the toothbrush.

For ages greater than 3 years old, squeeze a small amount (pea–sized) of toothpaste onto the toothbrush.

Brush the teeth gently with small circular movements.

Remember to brush the tongue during each toothbrushing session.

Brush for at least two minutes.

Flossing is important. Toothbrushing cleans about 60 percent of the teeth and flossing cleans the other 40 percent. Regular flossing should begin as soon as the teeth are touching other teeth. Flossing goes a long way to reduce gingivitis, which is the most common disease in humans. Flossing is important, but it is just as important to floss correctly. Here are a few tips on flossing.

Flossers are easier to use than tradition string floss.

Press the floss (between the plastic holder) between each tooth, scraping against the both sides of each tooth then repeat until the front and back of each tooth has been flossed.

Rinse and spit.

If it is hard to make flossing a habit, then floss before brushing teeth.

Dental sealants are another way to help protect children from getting cavities. Sealants are thin plastic coatings that cover the grooves of the back teeth. Molars and premolars have grooves and pits where bacteria can hide and the bristles of a toothbrush can’t fit in. Ask a dentist about dental sealants at the child’s next appointment to see if sealants would benefit the child.

For more information about children’s dental health, visit Mouth Healthy Kids at www.mouthhealthykids.org. For more information about healthy eating, check out the Army Public Health Center website at https://usaphcapps.amedd.army.mil/HIOShoppingCart/searchResults.aspx?hotlist=65 or go to www.MyPlate.gov.