Dramatic rise in number of young kids needing serious dental surgery

Courtny Gerrish, Stephanie Graham

Dramatic rise in number of young kids needing serious dental surgery

CREATED Apr. 23, 2012 - UPDATED: Apr. 23, 2012

MILWAUKEE- When 3-year-old Ben started complaining of a tooth ache, one look in his mouth revealed the reason why. Dentists found cavities in 15 of Ben's 20 teeth, and recommended dental surgery. Ben's mom Leah is concerned. "They're going to be pulling a lot of the teeth, and so anything left is going to be either capped or filled."

Ben's case is hardly unique. Dr. Jonathan Shenkin with the American Dental Association says there's been a dramatic rise in the number of children requiring surgery for extensive tooth decay. Dentists are performing everything from fillings and crowns, to root canals and extractions. In some hospitals, there are even months long wait lists.

"These are children anywhere from the age of one or two, up until they're six or seven," Dr. Shenkin says.

The tooth decay seen is so severe that dentists are routinely treating 10 or more baby teeth at a time. Dr. Joel Berg is with the University of Washington Center For Pediatric Dentistry. He explains, "General anesthesia is the preferred choice in many instances because of the volume of treatment, and to place the patient in the position of the best health for them long term."

The Center expects to carry out close to 1,500 surgeries this year alone. Dr. Berg says one of the main culprits is sugar in things like juice, sweetened water, soda, milk, and starches.

"It has a lot to do with the frequency of sugar. How often do you have sugar during the day? Every time you eat sugar, acid is formed that starts to dissolve the enamel," Dr. Berg warns.

Proper dental hygiene is another factor. The American Dental Association recommends scheduling a child's first visit by age one.

"We can actually inform parents of the behaviors they need to be doing at home with tooth brushing and nutrition, and put them on the right path to good oral health," Dr. Shenkin says.

That's why it's important to brush up on the basics. When teeth first erupt, clean them with a damp cloth. At one year, use a toothbrush with water, or fluoride-free training toothpaste.

Dr. Shenkin adds, "Most parents are unaware that they're supposed to start using a fluoride toothpaste no later than two years of age, and that delay in using fluoride toothpaste puts kids at greater risk of developing significant decay early on."

Finally, encourage healthy eating, and brush your pre-schooler's teeth twice a day. That's what Leah does. She's all smiles now that Ben's teeth are fixed.

"You want to do whatever you can to make him feel better," she exclaims.

It's also important to avoid sharing pacifiers or utensils with your children. Research has shown the bacteria that causes tooth decay can be transferred via saliva.