Professor in University of Tartu, Institute of Dentistry
Tooth cavities, also known as caries, are one of the most common diseases in humans, and most of the time, the sequence of cavity forming process begins already by childhood.
Although there are hundreds of different germs in the mouth, the germ Streptococcus mutans (SM) is considered as the main cause of the dental caries. These germs are not present in baby’s mouth at birth, but many babies become infected at the age of 6–30 months. The bad news is that this microbe cannot be eliminated from the mouth once it has attached to the teeth – it is possible to reduce the number of bacteria, but the microbe cannot be removed completely. For this reason, most adults have oral SM and, according to scientific studies, transmission of this infection to children is often connected to a family member or caregiver.
The microbe responsible for the tooth caries is transmitted from a parent to a child by either sharing utensils or by a peck, for example.
Why is the microbe in the mouth bad?
Children with the Streptococcus mutansi infection tend to have an earlier and more frequent onset of dental caries than those free from this infection. According to the research data dating back 10 years, 42% of children in Estonia between ages of 2 and 4 have caries and 58% of them have SM microbes. Damaged baby teeth, in turn, serve as an input to damage to permanent teeth, also described by the Runnel R study, which showed that 36.2% children had dental cavities in permanent teeth already by the first grade and 48.3% of them by the second grade.
How can you protect your child from the caries-causing microbe?
The parent must lower the number of Streptococcus mutansi microbe in his/her mouth in order reduce its spreading. In addition to careful brushing, it has been recommended to rinse your mouth with chlorhexidine-containing mouthwash and to use fluoride varnish and products containing xylitol.
Although xylitol is a well-established part of daily oral hygiene in Finland, in Estonia is it still rarely used.
Xylitol is a sugar substitute, that, when used, considerably reduces the risk of developing caries. It is well known that sugar is damaging to the teeth and its usage creates a favourable environment for developing dental cavities. Contrary to how sugar is processed, xylitol cannot be fermented by the microbes inhabiting the oral cavity, i.e. they cannot use it for life activities. With regular xylitol usage, the level of SM microbes in the mouth decreases.
Studies have shown that if a mother uses xylitol, then the level of SM in her mouth decreases, as does the risk of caries and the probability of contaminating a child with SM. To reduce susceptibility to infections caused by caries-producing microbes, it is beneficial to administer xylitol to children, either in the form of pastilles, which are now available in grocery stores and could be powdered or chopped up for younger children, or in the form of gel or syrup available on Web Stores. Chewing gum is not recommended for children under the age of 3 (https://www.xylitolpreventscavities.com/amount/child-xylitol-dose.html).
According to studies, 5–10 grams per day is an effective dose of xylitol for lowering microbial levels and that dose must be divided into several episodes, preferably after meals. Xylitol content in products varies significantly, products that contain xylitol 80% by mass or more are considered effective. Products with higher xylitol content also make it easier to calculate acquired xylitol grams. Chewing gums and pastilles on sale have xylitol percentage and product’s mass marked on the label.
It is essential to keep children’s teeth healthy, especially during the first three years of life, because studies have shown, that if the dental treatments start at an early age, then frequent visits at a dentist are necessary throughout his/her life.