Children's Hospital Colorado

Cavities (Dental Caries)

What are cavities?

As bacteria builds up on a tooth, it forms a sticky layer called plaque. Typically, plaque forms in between teeth, near the gums or in the grooves of a tooth. Over time, plaque can erode a tooth's enamel and form a small pit, known as a cavity. Untreated dental caries can erode into a tooth's inner layer (dentin) and become quite painful.

Most of the activities in the dental clinic at Children's Hospital Colorado revolve around diagnosis and treatment of cavities, or dental caries.

What causes cavities?

Cavities are caused by bacteria, usually streptococcus mutans, that builds up on teeth.

Behavior and nutrition have a significant impact on early childhood caries, or "bottle caries." Parents are often not aware that frequent consumption of milk, juices or even formula from a bottle or sippy-cup can cause cavities.

Who gets cavities?

Dental caries is the most prevalent chronic childhood disease and is five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever. Unfortunately, people who are underserved and from lower socioeconomic areas tend to have more cavities, although a child from any family or socioeconomic group can be diagnosed with cavities.

How do you prevent cavities?

Our goal is to help as many children as possible to grow up free of cavities. We urge parents to not diminish the importance of baby teeth – cavities in baby teeth will affect growing buds (incoming permanent teeth). To keep baby teeth healthy, focus on brushing, nutrition and feeding habits.

How do you prevent early childhood dental caries?

We encourage parents to help their kids establish good oral health habits at a young age. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that a baby's first dental visit occurs 6 months after the eruption of the first tooth or at age 12 months, whichever is sooner.

Children's Colorado offers an infant oral healthcare program, which provides comprehensive, preventative dental care to children under the age of 3. For information about the Cavity Free at Three Program, contact 720-777-6788.

How do you prevent caries in older children?

Older children should limit sweets and sugary drinks, brush their teeth at least twice per day and floss every day. School-aged kids and adolescents up to 18 years of age can receive preventative oral healthcare and treatment at the Healthy Smiles Clinic. For an appointment, call 720-777-6788.

What are the signs and symptoms of cavities?

Initially, your child may not notice any pain or discomfort from dental caries. However, when left untreated, toothaches and sensitivity are common symptoms.

Dental caries initially appear as a white spot on a tooth or between teeth, but because they are usually very small, they can't be seen by the untrained eye or without dental radiographs (X-rays). Therefore, it is important to see the dentist on a regular basis to increase the likelihood that the white spot can be detected and treated before the tooth develops a cavity.

How do doctors at Children's Colorado diagnose cavities?

Parents should see a dentist with their infant six months after eruption of his/her first tooth, or at one year of age for an infant oral health exam. During this first visit, a child's individual risk factors for dental caries are evaluated and discussed.

Cavities can be prevented with appropriate guidance. In the same manner parents take their children to pediatricians for regular wellness exams, they should take advantage of the opportunity for a "dental home."

How are dental caries treated?

During the onset of a dental caries (when a white spot appears on the tooth), "demineralization" can be reversed with appropriate fluoride treatment and nutritional changes.

A tooth with a smaller cavity can be restored with dental materials such as fillings or crowns, but extraction is often the only treatment possible if the cavity is large and involves the nerve and the bone around the tooth.

Why choose Children's Colorado for your child's cavity treatment?

We believe it is important to provide children with positive exposure to a dental environment. Our board-certified pediatric dentists, residents, dental assistants and anesthesiologists have dedicated their careers to working with kids and are well-versed in the techniques that can make your child feel less afraid and feel less pain.

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