Fluoride is a mineral that occurs naturally in many foods (such as eggs, fish, meat, and tea) and in water. It can help to maintain healthy teeth because every day minerals are lost from tooth enamel (demineralization) or added to it (remineralization), both of which can cause tooth decay. Fluoride – whether in water or in toothpastes or when applied topically by a dentist – can balance the remineralization process and make the teeth more resistant to decay due to acids caused by the buildup of plaque. In young children, fluoride becomes integrated into the permanent teeth as they develop, and can both reduce and reverse the spread of decay.
As mentioned, fluoride is found in many foods and waters, including some bottled waters. It is also applied to the teeth topically through the use of toothpastes and mouthwashes that contain it. Some people take fluoride supplements orally. But fluoride can also be applied to the teeth topically by a dentist, in the form of a gel, foam, or mouthwash. Because children receive fluoride treatments more often than adults, these topical gels and foams come in a range of tasty flavors – chocolate, strawberry, mint, and even pina colada.
Exposure to fluoride is most effective between the ages of 6 and 16, the period in which most of the permanent teeth come in. Adults can also benefit from topical fluoride treatment if they have a history of frequent cavities, gum disease, dry mouth conditions resulting from medications, or if they have crowns, bridges, or wear metal braces.
What can you expect if you get topical fluoride treatments?
Fluoride is best applied when the teeth are clean, so treatments often are done following a cleaning. During the fluoride treatment, the dentist will place the gel or foam that contains fluoride in a mouth-shaped tray and then place it over your teeth for a few seconds. Afterwards the dentist will ask you to spit out any saliva to avoid the possibility of swallowing too much of the gel, and possibly to refrain from eating, drinking or washing out your mouth for half an hour or so.
Fluoride treatments are regularly prescribed for children. If your child has a history of cavities or is otherwise at high risk for decay, you might consider additional sources of fluoride, such as supplements or mouthwashes that contain fluoride. Follow your dentist’s advice on this, however, as it is possible (especially in children) to absorb too much fluoride.