One of the best ways to help prevent cavities and tooth decay in children is something you may not even have heard of: sealants.
A thin coating applied to the chewing surfaces of the teeth – usually, the back teeth – the dental sealant fills the deep grooves and pits that normal brushing may not reach and “seals out” bacteria and food.
“Sealants are often used in children, but it can be used for adults, too, because those deep nooks and crannies are where we usually see cavities,” says Austin Dentist Samantha Hollinger, DMD.
For children, general practice is to apply a sealant to the permanent molars that come in around ages 6 and 12, “because they still lack the dexterity to do a good job brushing,” says Dr. Hollinger.
It’s not standard to apply sealant to baby teeth, but there are cases where it may be the best option.
“Baby teeth are just so tiny that if there’s a cavity in them, most pediatric dentists won’t even put a filling in them; they’ll use a crown instead,” she says. “If I see cavities developing in baby teeth, I may recommend sealants on the healthy teeth to keep them that way.”
Nature always has a reason: one of the main functions of baby teeth is to hold space for the proper placement of the permanent teeth when they come in. Allowing baby teeth to decay and possibly fall out early can lead to other dental problems that require even more expensive treatment later.
Worse, a tooth infection can spread quickly to other areas of the body — even the brain. “Unfortunately, we see a kid die from tooth infection every year because people think they can just let the tooth rot and fall out,” says Dr. Hollinger. “That’s another very good reason to keep baby teeth healthy.”
Sealants protect teeth from decay and can last up to 10 years. That’s up to 10 years of not having to pay for and endure the work of fillings, crowns, root canals, and such.
Some schools offer sealants as part of a community public health program.
The CDC reports that school-age children without sealants have almost three times more cavities than children with sealants.
Most insurance companies cover the cost of sealants for patients younger than 18, but the cost is low enough that sealant can be a great investment for adults with deeply grooved teeth ($30 to $60 per tooth sealed; versus $95 to $250 to have a tooth filled, for example).
“Keeping teeth healthy and intact is always best,” notes Dr. Hollinger. “A tooth that hasn’t been compromised by drilling and filling is stronger and will stay healthy longer. Fillings, crowns, and other interventions come with a lifelong cost of maintenance and possible replacement as they age.”
Sealant application does require skill. If sealant is applied improperly, it may not last as long, so it’s important to find a dentist who is experienced with sealants.
Along with being one of the most effective ways to prevent cavities in the back teeth, sealant is one of the quickest and easiest: after a thorough cleaning, the teeth are dried and etched with an acid solution to help the sealant bond. The acid is rinsed and the teeth are dried again, and the sealant is then painted onto the teeth.
A simple and painless process, it takes only a few minutes to protect teeth for years.