Fluoride is a mineral that occurs naturally in many foods and water. Every day, minerals are added to and lost from a tooth's enamel layer through two processes, demineralization and remineralization. Minerals are lost (demineralization) from a tooth's enamel layer when acids -- formed from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth -- attack the enamel. Minerals such as fluoride, calcium, and phosphate are redeposited (remineralization) to the enamel layer from the foods and waters consumed. Too much demineralization without enough remineralization to repair the enamel layer leads to tooth decay.
Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by making the tooth more resistant to acid attacks from plaque bacteria and sugars in the mouth. It also reverses early decay. In children under 6 years of age, fluoride becomes incorporated into the development of permanent teeth, making it difficult for acids to demineralize the teeth. Fluoride also helps speed remineralization as well as disrupts acid production in already erupted teeth of both children and adults.
As mentioned, fluoride is found in foods and in water. It can also be directly applied to the teeth through fluoridated toothpastes and mouth rinses. Mouth rinses containing fluoride in lower strengths are available over-the-counter; stronger concentrations require a doctor's prescription.
Dr. Stokes or our dental hygienist can also apply fluoride to the teeth as a gel, foam, or varnish. These treatments contain a much higher level of fluoride than the amount found in toothpastes and mouth rinses. Varnishes are painted on the teeth; foams are put into a mouth guard, which is applied to the teeth for one to four minutes; gels can be painted on or applied via a mouth guard.
Fluoride supplements are also available as liquids and tablets and must be prescribed by Dr. Stokes, your pediatrician, or family doctor.
When Is Fluoride Intake Most Critical?
Dr. Stokes recommends that fluoride treatments begin at approximately 3 years of age. It is certainly important for infants and children between the ages of 6 months and 16 years to be exposed to fluoride. This is the timeframe during which the primary and permanent teeth come in. However, adults benefit from fluoride, too. New research indicates that topical fluoride -- from toothpastes, mouth rinses, and fluoride treatments -- are as important in fighting tooth decay as in strengthening developing teeth.
In addition, people with certain conditions may be at increased risk of tooth decay and would therefore benefit from additional fluoride treatment. They include people with:
Dry mouth conditions: Also called xerostomia, dry mouth caused by diseases such as Sjögren's syndrome, certain medications (such as allergy medications,antihistamines, antianxiety drugs, and high blood pressure drugs), and head and neck radiation treatment makes someone more prone to tooth decay. The lack of saliva makes it harder for food particles to be washed away and acids to be neutralized.
Gum disease: Gum disease, also called gingivitis, can expose more of your tooth and tooth roots to bacteria increasing the chance of tooth decay.
History of frequent cavities: If you have one cavity every year or every other year, you might benefit from additional fluoride.
Presence of crowns and/or bridges or braces: These treatments can put teeth at risk for decay at the point where the crown meets the underlying tooth structure or around the brackets of orthodontic appliances.
Ask Dr. Stokes if you could benefit from a fluoride treatment.