Baby teeth aren’t permanent, and this is many a parent’s excuse for dismissing everything from early tooth brushing to visiting the dentist before the age of 5. But as we covered in “The Big Role of Baby Teeth,” these temporary molars and incisors are important space markers for permanent teeth to come. Treat them well and the little ones’ adult teeth are more likely to come in straight and cavity-free.
Unfortunately, the chances of getting through primary teeth without cavities are slim. In a five-year National Health and Nutrition Study, nearly half of children ages 2 to 11 had dental caries. Numerous reports suggest that the trend has only increased since, with sugary diets, soda consumption, and prolonged bottle feeding among the reasons.
So what happens when a baby tooth gets a cavity? Are fillings necessary, especially if the cavity is pain-free? Bear in mind that tooth decay is an infection – allow it to continue and your youngster may require more serious treatment in addition to a filling. Baby teeth will eventually fall out, but it’s important to give them the dental care they need while they’re still in place. This includes fillings.
Filling a cavity in the baby tooth will prevent the spread of infection, keep a healthy pathway for the adult tooth beneath to grow in, and ensure normal speech and proper chewing/nutrition for the child. Not to mention relieving a child from potential pain that can come with leaving a cavity unchecked – repercussions of this can include everything from distraction in school to aching, sleepless nights.
One Bay Area parent discusses her five-year-old son’s experience with cavities: “He had two small cavities on his back molars,” she tells the Berkeley Parents’ Network. “[Our dentists] were able to fill one cavity no problem, but they took an x-ray and said one of them is too big now and touching his nerve, so they are recommending a root canal.”
Whenever possible, the primary tooth should be kept in place as a space marker, so in cases of more severe decay, your pediatric dentist may recommend a root canal or a crown versus extraction. This endodontic treatment in children, or treatment which involves the pulp containing the nerves of a tooth, is not unusual.
According to Alameda Pediatric Dentistry’s Dr. Thenard, baby teeth have much thinner enamel than adult teeth. “Even the hint of a cavity can quickly progress into a large cavity that can lead to pain, infection, abscess, and swelling in the area,” she says.
By the time endodontic treatment is needed, the little one will likely have been complaining of pain or sensitivity, and parents are more than willing to work with their health care provider. Recommended procedures will depend on the severity of damage to pulp.
Whether the baby tooth is repaired with a filling or crown, it will fall out as usual when the time comes to pass it on to the tooth fairy. Don’t forget these early preventative tips to keep caries from happening in the first place! Also, look out for an upcoming post on dental sealants to help spare permanent teeth from the same fate.