Most people know that brushing and flossing are essential steps to take in order to have healthy teeth and gums. But brushing and flossing are not the only way to protect dental health. Many dentists offer fluoride treatments as an extra protection for their patients to help fortify their teeth against bacteria and tooth decay.
Cavities and tooth decay occur as a result of bacteria that form around the teeth and gums. These bacteria live in dental plaque, the clear sticky biofilm that covers the teeth and gums. These bacteria produce acid that destroys tooth enamel over time. This process is called demineralization. Plaque can be brushed and flossed away, but when patients do not routinely brush or floss, bacteria are able to feed and flourish as a result of food particles left behind in the teeth. The more bacteria, the more acid they produce. The more acid present means an increased risk of damage to the teeth.
Fluoride is a backup to regular and routine brushing and flossing. Fluoride is a mineral found in nature – in water, soil and rocks and can help remineralize, or fortify, teeth that are in the very early stages of tooth decay.
Dentists apply fluoride topically to the teeth as part of regular checkups. This is a practice that has been used for decades in order to help prevent tooth decay. This is an especially important practice for patients that are at risk of developing tooth decay as a result of illness, using certain medications or have a genetic predisposition to weakened tooth enamel that makes them susceptible to decay. Fluoride treatments are also beneficial for children, who may not have developed proper brushing techniques. Other groups hat benefit from forward also include people that do not have access to regular dental care, or avoid dental treatments due to cost.
When fluoride is applied at the dentist, it is usually brushed on, swished in the mouth as a rinse, or in some cases, patients are given a gel filled tray to wear for several minutes. Patients should not eat or drink for at least 30 minutes after the fluoride application. This allows the teeth to absorb the mineral.
A large majority of individuals also get fluoride through their faucet. Since 1945, cities and towns across the United States at fluoride to their water delivery systems. The benefits of ingesting fluoride in this manner are exactly the same as receiving it topically. Patients at risk of developing tooth decay are able to receive the remineralization benefits of the mineral, despite the reason for their risk. This lowers both dental and medical care costs for communities, and on average saves municipalities, $43 in health care costs in relation to every dollar spent to add it to the water supply.
"Fluoride treatments are a great way to protect the teeth," says Dr. James Erpenbach, D.D.S. Erpenbach is a dentist who practices preventative and biomimetic dentistry in Knoxville, Tennessee. "Fluoride helps to mitigate the damage that can be caused by acid erosion."
Bacteria in the mouth are not the only source of acid erosion, says Erpenbach. Diets high in acid and sugar can cause acid, as can the use of drugs and alcohol, and medical treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Some patients experience acid erosion as a result of chronic dry mouth, because saliva production is inhibited, and cannot help to offset the damaging acid.
"While fluoride is not the end all, beat all treatment to protect the teeth, it is an excellent way to passively protect your dental health," Erpenbach explains. "When combined with brushing and flossing, you have a trifecta of protection."