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`HOW & WHY' - BRUSHING CAN PREVENT CAVITIES

When your parents were little, it was pretty normal for kids to get cavities in their teeth. Almost all kids did.

Cavities are holes that form in the hard enamel covering of the teeth. The enamel on your teeth is the hardest thing in your body - even harder than bone. It's tough stuff, but it can be damaged. When that happens, bacteria can get inside the cavity and start eating away the softer layer called "dentin." The infection can spread inside your tooth.Cavities get started when tiny bacteria, or germs, in your mouth change the food you eat into a strong acid. The acid can actually eat holes in your teeth. When you brush your teeth, you get rid of the bits of food that bacteria change into acid, as well as any acid that has already formed in your mouth after a meal. That's why brushing is so important. (Plus, it makes your smile look a lot better.)

When someone gets a cavity, the dentist fills it to prevent more decay. After the decay is removed with a high-speed drill, the hole is filled with a mixture of metals or plastic. Your tooth is whole again. Dentists do this job quickly and painlessly. But they'd rather not do it at all. They'd like to see kids avoid cavities altogether.

Today, kids are much less likely to get cavities than their parents were. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, a group of dentists who specialize in treating children, more than half of American kids under 12 do not have one single cavity. You may be one of the lucky ones yourself. Just 10 years ago, only one-quarter of children under 12 were free of cavities, so we're doing pretty well.

Children's dentists would like to see the situation get even better. By the year 2000, they would like every child under age 12 to be free of cavities.

How can this happen? First, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends, all kids should make regular visits to the dentist, starting as soon as their first tooth appears when they're about six months old. This means taking a baby to the dentist sooner than parents used to. You probably didn't see a dentist until you were almost 2. But recent studies have shown that babies can develop cavities, too - especially if they keep bottles in their mouths a lot of the time.

Dentists used to say that certain foods were far worse than others when it came to starting cavities - especially sugar. Recent research has shown that almost any food can cause cavities. It seems that it's not what you eat so much as how you eat it that affects your teeth - although it's still a good idea to avoid sugary, gooey snacks or foods that stick to your teeth. One dental study showed that 10-year-old kids put food in their mouths 22 times a day! If you snack on and off all day, dentists say, your saliva never gets a chance to clear excess acid from your mouth. Your teeth stay in a constant bath of mild acid, and the enamel is more likely to start breaking down.

During the 1980s, four out of five cavities that developed in kids' mouths appeared on the chewing surfaces of the teeth. Dentists say that using sealants can prevent all of these cavities. Sealants are clear material that form a protective barrier between your tooth enamel and whatever you have in your mouth. It's like putting a clear plastic cover on a notebook you want to protect. The dentist puts the material on the chewing surfaces of your molars, the broad, rough-surfaced teeth that you use for grinding. That's where bits of food are likely to get caught and start producing an acid bath for your teeth. The plastic seal prevents food and bacteria from gathering in the pitted surface of the molars.

A substance called fluoride also prevents cavities. For years fluoride has been added to many community water supplies. It can actually heal tooth decay and reharden tooth enamel.

Dentists can give fluoride supplements, often in the form of a vitamin pill, to kids who do not drink fluoridated water. Using a toothpaste with fluoride in it also helps. You should brush with fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day. That helps keep the level of fluoride in your saliva high enough to fight cavities all day. To completely remove all the bits of food that may be hanging around in your mouth, use dental floss, too. Next time you visit the dentist, ask for a lesson in how to floss your teeth.

The best times to brush your teeth are after breakfast in the morning and before you go to bed. Brush vigorously for at least three minutes at a time. You can be a member of the first cavity-free generation of American kids.

-TIPS FOR PARENTS:

In spite of real progress in the war on cavities, the American Academy of Pediatrics Advisory Committee on Dentistry for Children says that dental caries remains the most prevalent chronic disease among children in the United States and is a major cause of tooth loss among children and adolescents. Caries-related health problems include school absence, poor nutrition and negative self-image - all this for a disease that is completely preventable. The committee urges parents to teach children good oral hygiene habits, to make sure they are seen by dentists early and regularly and to use fluoride supplements and dental sealants.

-Do you wonder about your body, your feelings or how things work in the world around you? Send your questions to Catherine O'Neill, HOW & WHY, Universal Press Syndicate, 4900 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64112.