Dental sealants have become more common as a means to prevent tooth decay in children. What exactly are they, are they safe, and what is involved in applying them?
While at-home brushing, flossing, and professional cleanings remain the best way to prevent cavities, sometimes little hands have trouble brushing well. The grooves (called pits and fissures) that run through the surfaces of back teeth can easily catch bits of food and are hard to reach even for some adults.
Dental sealants can help prevent little ones' teeth from getting cavities. An October 2016 report done by the Centers for Disease Control found that "school-age children without sealants have almost three times more cavities than children with sealants."
While there is no substitute for brushing and flossing, sealants can be a great second line of defense against a cavity. Sealants have been shown to reduce the risk of decay by nearly 80% in molars.
What Is a Dental Sealant?
A sealant is a thin, protective coating that is a hardened liquid resin flowed over the pits and fissures of a child's back teeth to create a smooth, even surface. This helps prevent cavities by making it impossible for food and drink to settle into the grooves. It also makes the tooth easier to keep clean, especially while young hands are still developing dexterity.
Although they generally recommend getting them as early as possible, any child or adult can benefit from sealants when the first permanent molars poke through the gums around age 6. By sealing these teeth as soon as possible, you can protect them from decay.
Some sealant materials contain fluoride and can be placed over teeth that show the first signs of demineralization to rebuild the enamel in that area.
How Are Dental Sealants Applied?
Getting a sealant is quick, easy, painless, and rarely requires anesthesia. The procedure is a lot like that of a tooth-colored filling. In fact, the sealant material is much the same.
Your child's dentist will isolate the tooth or teeth being sealed and apply a gel that etches the tooth surface. This roughens up the surface and gives the sealant something to grab onto. After the gel is rinsed away, and the tooth is dried again, the liquid resin sealant material is applied. It's flowed over the tooth surface, making sure it covers the whole surface, getting into all the nooks and crannies. Then, your child's dentist will use a blue light to harden the sealant.
Once your child's sealants are cured, they can eat and drink as normal. And other than regular brushing and flossing, sealants essentially take care of themselves. Your child won't even know that they are there.
Your child's hygienist and the dentist will check the sealants at each hygiene appointment, ensuring they are intact. Some sealant materials are even clear, allowing their dentist to keep an eye on the tooth underneath to make sure there is no decay.
A sealant can last several years. Most sealants will need to be replaced at some point, but replacing one is still the same simple procedure.
Combined with proper at-home care and regular hygiene visits, sealants are one more way to help prevent the pain and expense of a childhood cavity. Proving once again that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.