Your child won't keep his or her first teeth forever, but that doesn't mean those tiny pearly whites don't need conscientious care. Maintaining your child's dental health now will provide health benefits well into adulthood, as primary (baby) teeth serve some extremely important functions.
For one thing, primary teeth serve as guides for the eruption of permanent (adult) teeth, holding the space into which these new teeth will erupt. The crowns (tops) of the permanent teeth actually push against the roots of the baby teeth, causing them to resorb, or melt away. In this way, the adult teeth can take their proper place.
What's more, your child's primary teeth will be there for most of childhood, helping your child to bite, chew and speak. For the first six or so years, he or she will be relying on primary teeth exclusively to perform these important functions. Until around age 12, your child will have a mix of primary and permanent teeth. You will want to make sure those teeth stay healthy and are lost naturally — when it's time.
Your Child's First Teeth
Your child's 20 baby teeth will begin to appear usually between six and nine months, though in some cases it may start as early as three months or as late as twelve months. The two lower front teeth tend to erupt first, followed by the two upper ones, these teeth are called the central incisors. Then the neighboring teeth called lateral incisors will erupt too. The first molars come in next, followed by the canines (eyeteeth). And finally, the last teeth to erupt are the two-year molars. Sometimes your baby can experience teething discomfort during this process. If so, there are courses of action to help make your child more comfortable.
Your infant's gums should be gently wiped after each feeding with a water-soaked gauze pad or damp washcloth. As soon as the first tooth erupts, establish a daily brushing routine with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush and no more than a thin smear of fluoridated toothpaste. Your child may need your help with this important task until about the age of 6.
Your Child's First Dental Appointment
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that your child see a dentist by his/her first birthday, or as early as the first tooth erupts. Though this may sound early, learning proper pediatric oral hygiene techniques, checking for cavities, and watching for developmental problems is extremely important.
There are a number of forms of tooth decay that can affect babies and small children. Early Childhood Caries (tooth decay) can develop rapidly, progressing from the hard, outer enamel layer of a tooth into the softer, inner dentin in six months or less.
Most of all, it's important for your child to have a positive experience at the dental office as he/she will be a regular visitor for years to come.
Pediatric Dental Treatments
There are a variety of dental treatments offered to prevent tooth decay in children, or to save or repair teeth when necessary. They include:
Topical Fluoride — Fluoride incorporates into the enamel of teeth, making it harder and more resistant to decay. Although there is a small amount of fluoride in toothpastes and in some drinking water supplies, a higher concentration can be applied professionally to your child's teeth for maximum protection.
Dental Sealants — A plastic coating can be applied at the dental office to prevent cavities by sealing the little grooves on the chewing surfaces of back teeth known as “pits and fissures.” These little crevices become the perfect environments for decay-causing bacteria. Immature tooth enamel is more permeable and therefore less resistant to tooth decay. Dental sealants are easy to apply and provide years of protection (Watch Dental Sealant Video).
Root Canal Treatment — Perhaps you have had a root canal treatment yourself, to save an injured or severely decayed tooth. Well, sometimes children need root canals, too. In children these are called pulpotomies or pulpectomies. As mentioned above, baby teeth are important guides to the permanent teeth that are already forming beneath your child's gums. Therefore, saving them from premature loss can help prevent a malocclusion (“mal” – bad; “occlusion” – bite) that requires orthodontic treatment.
Bonding — Chips and minor fractures to front teeth — common childhood occurrences — can be repaired with tooth-colored bonding materials. These lifelike resins made of plastic and glass can be used on baby teeth as well as permanent teeth and last until the youngster has completed facial growth (Watch Bonding Video).
By around age 7, most malocclusions have become evident. Interceptive orthodontic treatment around this time can help direct proper tooth positioning and/or jaw growth, eliminating or simplifying the need for later treatment. There are many orthodontic problems that can be detected early and are examples of why a trained professional should evaluate your child during his/her growth and development.
Sports & Your Child's Teeth
If your child is active in sports, a custom-made mouthguard is a highly recommended safeguard. According to the American Dental Association, an athlete is 60 times more likely to suffer dental harm when not wearing one of these protective devices. A custom mouthguard is made specifically for your child using a model of his or her teeth. This will offer greater protection than an off-the-shelf model. It's an investment that pays off highly in the form of reduced pain, suffering — and dental expenses down the road!
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Maintaining good oral health has many rewards: A sparkling smile, fresh breath, and healthy gums. But recent scientific evidence suggests that it may have an even greater benefit to your overall health: Specifically, it could potentially reduce your risk for a number of systemic (whole-body) diseases, including cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis — even premature birth.
Periodontal (gum) disease is estimated to affect nearly half of all Americans, and is the major cause of adult tooth loss. Numerous studies have shown that patients with severe periodontal disease are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Periodontitis may also increase the chance that diabetes will develop or progress, and research suggests an association between gum disease and adverse pregnancy outcomes as well.
Inflammation: Friend and Foe
What's the link between diseases of the mouth — like gum disease — and those of the body? They are connected by the body's natural reaction to harmful stimuli, which we call the inflammatory response. Often characterized by pain, redness and swelling, inflammation is a process by which your immune system responds to damage or disease in your tissues. Inflammation can help the body heal — or, if it becomes chronic, it can lead to more serious problems.
Gum disease (periodontitis), CVD, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis are all associated with the same type of inflammatory response. Studies have found that moderate to severe periodontitis tends to increase the level of systemic inflammation — a condition that may smolder in the background, awaiting the right conditions to flare into a more serious disease. It has also been shown that the same strains of bacteria that are found in inflamed gum tissue may also appear in the arterial plaques of individuals suffering from CVD.
How Does It Work?
While there is intriguing evidence of a link between gum disease and other systemic diseases, further studies will be needed to prove whether one causes the other. At present, however, several mechanisms have been proposed to explain how the connection works. One suggestion is that oral bacteria themselves may enter the bloodstream, form into clumps, and trigger systemic inflammation. The inflammatory response can cause swelling of cells and tissues, which narrow the arteries and increase the risk of blood clots.
Another possibility is that byproducts of oral bacteria released into the bloodstream could trigger the production of substances called CRPs (C-reactive proteins) in the liver. These proteins tend to inflame blood vessels and promote the formation of clots, possibly leading to clogged arteries, heart disease and stroke. Elevated CRP levels, according to some studies, are a stronger predictor of heart attack than cholesterol levels.
What You Can Do
Since chronic inflammation is a systemic problem, the best way to begin controlling it is via a whole-body approach. Maintaining a healthy weight, getting moderate exercise (and, if you use tobacco, quitting the habit) will help with this. So will bringing untreated inflammatory diseases, such as periodontitis, under control.
There are a number of effective treatments for periodontal disease, including nonsurgical procedures such as root cleaning and the local application of antimicrobials. For more serious conditions, conventional or laser gum surgery is an option. Finally, to keep your gums healthy between office visits, you need to develop an effective oral hygiene routine you can practice at home.
Although it's too early to say that periodontal disease causes heart disease or other systemic conditions, they seem to have a connection. And while medicine and dentistry can't change genetics, together we can control external factors like excess weight, tobacco use… and gum disease. Maintaining good oral hygiene is the best way to avoid periodontal problems. But if problems occur, don't wait: The sooner you have treatment, the better your chances for controlling gum disease — and perhaps systemic diseases too.
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