Children's healthy teeth is a family matter

Dental cavities are like unwanted houseguests: They are caused by bacteria called strep mutans, which break down sugars to create acid that attacks tooth enamel.

Strep mutans are primarily, though not exclusively, transmitted within the immediate family, most commonly between mother and child. In normal interactions between parents and their children, these bacteria can be passed from the primary caregiver to young children. So, when caregivers have large amounts of bacteria in their mouths, similar amounts of bacteria - and cavities - often can be found in their children. This is especially likely if other factors are present, such as poor oral hygiene and a diet high in sugar.

Do visiting friends and family eat junk food and set a horrible example for your kids? You've got to be the parent here; be direct, clear, and set boundaries. Tell your friends and family: no soda pop, fruit juice, Twinkies, or chips. Insist they clean up their mess, and give them a deadline when they have to go. You need some back-bone here, but you can do it.

Interfaith Community Health Center is a non-profit, patient- and community-governed provider of primary medical, dental, behavioral health and pharmacy services. In collaboration with the Whatcom Oral Health Coalition, we're building a strategy that will help us raise a new generation of children free of cavities. Here are key strategies:

Take preventive dental care to the children: Interfaith is expanding school-based dental services to all elementary and middle schools in Whatcom County. With parental consent, we provide basic oral exams and referrals for follow-up care, if needed; application of topical fluoride treatments to strengthen the tooth enamel of children; and dental sealants, which protect the teeth from contact with the bacteria and acid that cause cavities.

Provide dental care early: So that we may focus on prevention rather than the treatment of disease, we start dental care as early as the child's first birthday. Important dental prevention efforts can be provided as part of a well-child medical exam, so you may want to talk to your medical provider about doing a screening exam and applying fluoride. Dental cavities are more common among low-income children and, sadly, only half of the children on Medicaid in Whatcom County see a dentist each year.

Pregnancy: Women with untreated dental disease will have the strep mutans infection that causes cavities. If their dental disease goes untreated, the strep mutans infection will be passed to their infant after birth and initiate the process that leads to cavities after the child's teeth emerge at around six months of age. Treating the dental disease before birth can interrupt this cycle.

Primary caregivers of children: If we treat children but send them back into a home where parents have untreated dental disease and the strep mutans infection, it's likely that they will develop more cavities. At Interfaith, we're working to build the capacity to treat the whole family circle.

So, those houseguests who have overstayed their welcome are like strep mutans infection. Be the parent; draw the line against sugary foods and insist on brushing and flossing. Make sure your child gets great prevention services, such as twice annual fluoride applications, sealants in the elementary- and middle-school years, regular exams and early treatment of cavities. As a community, let's develop the capacity to not only treat children, but the whole family circle. Then, we will raise a new generation free of dental cavities.


Carrie Shane is dental director at Interfaith Community Health Center. For more information online, go to interfaithchc.org/services/dental.