I will always remember my childhood dentist, Dr. Tarentino. I will especially remember his eyes, boring down into my mouth as intensely as his drill. Though my parents were smart people with advanced degrees in Theology, they could be remarkably naive about personal health care. As a toddler I loved to walk around with a bottle in my mouth, and they let me. Since milk was expensive and filling, they substituted Kool-aid for my habit. Thus my memories of Dr. Tarentino, his eyes, and the scream of the drill.
We non-dentist doctors see lots of tooth problems in the Emergency Department. There are too many kids out there with bad dental hygiene, which leads to cavities, which leads to tooth pain and infection. Yet only a few minutes per day of tooth care prevents such misery. First, supervise your kid’s brushing. Many parents tell their kids to go brush their teeth, and minutes later the child reports- job done! But how good a job? When kids are left alone to brush, they often just do a couple of strokes on a couple of teeth before moving on. From an early age, be there to watch your kids brush every time, insuring that they get all tooth surfaces, brushing gently instead of scrubbing like they were taking off old paint.
Start tooth care at an early age. After all, your kids get teeth in the first year of life. Get them used to brushing as soon as they have teeth, again, gently! You don’t want it to hurt and make them hate brushing. If it is a habit when they are so young, it gets ingrained as a habit for the rest of their lives. Bring them to the dentist early as well- as young as age two. Then they learn that the dentist can be fun and every dental visit won’t mean pain.
Unlike my parents, avoid that sugary diet. We all have bacteria in our mouths, no matter how much brushing and flossing. Dental hygiene keeps down that bacteria that hurts our teeth. Sugars in our diet feed that bacteria, which turn that sugar into acids which burn into our teeth. Those burn holes are cavities.
It always seems that the tooth pain cases come in at night. The lights are down, the house is finally quiet, there are no more distractions for a kid. WIth the quiet of bedtime comes the realization that something has been hurting- ouch, its my tooth! The child cries and the mom finally has time to notice that the side of the child’s face is swollen. They rush into the Emergency Department with their tooth infection.
However, dental infections are not sudden emergencies. By their very nature, they are slow-growing illnesses. It starts with a cavity. Over weeks and months, the mouth bacteria that started the cavity chew deeper into the tooth. The cavity finally gets deep enough to infect the gums. The infection causes inflammation, swelling, and terrible pain in one of the most sensitive parts of the body.
Actually, dental infections don’t start with a cavity. They start with bad mouth care. As we mentioned above, unsupervised brushing, along with not flossing and too much sugar, allow mouth bacteria to get out of hand and begin to eat into the child’s tooth surfaces. Tooth infections also start with children not getting enough flouride in their diet. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry is very clear on the science- communities with flouride in their water save lots of money and anguish not having to care for so many rotten, painful teeth. In places where the water is not flouridated (Louisiana), the AADP recommends flouride supplements for children. In other words, Louisiana children should take flouride just like they would take any other vitamin.
Back to my parents, who let me toddle about with a kool-aid bottle in my mouth and thus support my childhood dentist’s practice . My parents were wonderful people who did more good in the world than I can ever hope to approach. They raised three happy successful boys. Just don’t follow their lead in their third son’s dental hygiene.