40% of kids in the U.S. have had at least one cavity by the time they reach kindergarten. While tooth decay is largely preventable, this reality has come to be for a number of reasons, including ignorance about the importance of brushing at an early age—41% of parents surveyed believed brushing should start at the age of three—and a lack of dental hygiene products in the home. The worst reason is one that has persisted for generations.
A child’s teeth can not be neglected simply because they will eventually be replaced. Their primary teeth need to last from six to ten years depending on the tooth. A cavity at age three or four should be treated right away. (Ideally, preventing cavities from happening in the first place is always the best plan. See our tips at the end of this post.)
1. Tooth decay gets more expensive to treat the longer you wait.
A small cavity is cheaper to treat than a much larger one because it takes less product and less time to correct. Contacting your dentist as soon as you spot the cavity will almost always cost less in the long run, usually between $150 to $300 depending on where you live.
Your dentist may even opt to treat the decay with silver diamine fluoride, which will stop the decay from progressing, if she believes the tooth will naturally fall out in the near future. This will avoid more costly procedures later and will prevent the spread of infection to nearby teeth.
If the cavity is left unchecked it could reach the pulp and root before the tooth is ready to be shed, which could lead to a costly root canal or trip to the emergency room. The average cost of a root canal ranges from $600 to $1,400 plus the cost of a crown, which usually run around $1,000 and are NOT covered by most state-funded dental plans.
2. Tooth decay hurts. A lot.
Once the cavity reaches the inner nerve of the tooth the pain can be excruciating. Kids who suffer from tooth decay lose sleep and have a hard time eating. The pain can also cause difficulty concentrating at school—if they make it to school at all. Dental diseases are one of the leading causes of absenteeism and lead to two million missed school days each year.
Some parents believe that a cheaper option may be to simply have the decaying tooth pulled instead of filled. Your dentist will likely advise against this for two reasons:
3. The early loss of teeth affects speech development.
We don’t often think of teeth when it comes to talking, but they are essential for young children to speak clearly. Losing teeth—especially the front upper or lower teeth—before the age of three can cause speech impairment that can last into later years.
4. Missing teeth may lead to costly orthodontic treatment later on.
Another function of primary teeth is to hold space for the permanent teeth that will eventually replace them. Whether the tooth is lost to decay or extraction, early loss can cause adult teeth to come in crooked and need expensive orthodontic treatment. Crooked teeth are more than unsightly, they can also cause pain, speech problems and are more difficult to keep clean.
5. Untreated tooth decay leads to bone loss and a lifetime of dental expenses.
When a baby tooth is left untreated, the cavity can spread to the adult tooth beneath it or, if the child is very young, to the bone that holds the tooth in place. Maryellen* told us of how childhood decay in her second premolar is still costing her well into her forties.
“I remember crying at night because my tooth hurt so much,” she said. “My mother couldn’t afford a dental visit but gave me Tylenol and a numbing gel to help me sleep, but it didn’t help much. I think I was about four years old. I pulled the tooth out in pieces, little brown shards that looked like popcorn husks.” Eventually, once all the pieces were out the pain was gone but the damage extended to the empty socket where the tooth once lived.
“When my permanent tooth grew in [usually around age 11 or 12] it came in sideways, leaning forward and sitting way lower than my other teeth. In my twenties I got braces, which pulled the tooth up into the correct position, but it exposed the root above the gum line,” she continued. “Of course, the root isn’t protected by enamel, so I’ve had to get treatments to cover the exposed root, which has cost me several hundred dollars. My dentist says it’s only a matter of time before I lose that tooth too. Then I’ll need a bridge. I don’t want to think about how much that will cost me.”
6. Infection from cavities can spread to other parts of the body.
Tooth decay is caused by an infection. The bacteria that cause tooth decay can infect the bloodstream and have been linked to other diseases including heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some forms of cancer. In some cases the infection can even spread to the brain. Sadly, this was the case for 12-year-old Deamonte Driver. The dental care he needed was delayed for so long that he ended up in the hospital for six weeks and needed two surgeries that ultimately failed to save his life.
Although cases like this are rare, these types of infections send 61,000 people to the hospital each year and result in 66 deaths.
7. Ignoring cavities teaches kids that having them is normal. It’s not.
When parents believe the myth that cavities in baby teeth aren’t important, their kids grow up believing it too. Kids need to learn that, although cavities are common, they are not normal, and they are easy to prevent.
“You’re not healthy without good oral health.” —former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop
Kids that don’t learn to brush for two minutes, two times every day and visit their dentist two times each year will grow into adults with unhealthy mouths. Adults with poor oral health often struggle with other health complications and limited job prospects.
The good news is, by establishing healthy dental hygiene habits at an early age, kids can live free of dental decay and the expensive care that is needed to treat it.
Proper oral care begins at birth.
Children should visit the dentist regularly—not only when there is a problem.
Brush with your toddler.
Don’t skip flossing.
Take sugar consumption seriously.
Keep healthy habits going as kids grow older.
Cavities do not have to be part of childhood. Kids can be proud of their healthy smile and avoid the pain and embarrassment of decay. Follow the tips above to ensure the kids in your life grow up with healthy habits that will continue into adulthood for a lifetime of healthy smiles!
Find a printable version of this article, fun educational activity sheets and dental hygiene tracking charts, as well as tools to find a dentist for your child on our Resources Page.