People are unaware that tooth decay is the most prevalent disease in our society, yet it is one of the most preventable. Dentists are trained to manage the consequences of tooth decay, providing fillings to fix cavities, but most prevention of dental decay takes place in the home. It is what you do on a daily basis that has much more impact on your oral health than what happens at the dental surgery.

The two most important things to consider are diet and brushing with fluoride toothpaste.

In recent months there has been an increasing focus in the media about the importance of a healthy diet. Tooth-friendly foods and drinks are good for your general health as well as your oral health. Foods and drinks that are high in sugar can contribute to health problems such as weight gain and diabetes, as well as tooth decay. Children and adults should be discouraged from drinking sugary drinks; water and plain milk are the best options for children, while adults who drink tea and coffee should not add sugar.

Other factors contributing to the harmfulness of foods include the consistency and the acidity of foods and drinks. Sticky foods stay on the teeth for longer and are more likely to cause tooth decay, while acidic food and drinks such as fizzy drinks, juices and sour sweets are also harmful to teeth. If you enjoy an occasional indulgence it should be just that – occasional. It is best to eat sugary treats only once a week – not every day!

All adults and children who have their own teeth need to brush them twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. Children usually need to have their teeth brushed for them until they are about eight years old. Some older children and adults, such as those with special needs, may also require ongoing assistance with tooth brushing.

Toothpastes ineffective without fluoride

The Ministry of Health and the New Zealand Dental Association recommend that toothpastes contain at least 1000 parts per million (ppm) fluoride. With the emergence of new toothpastes on the supermarket shelves in recent months, it is essential that consumers check that their toothpaste contains fluoride.

A recent study concluded there is no evidence that tooth brushing using a toothpaste without fluoride is effective in reducing tooth decay. Conversely, fluoride-containing toothpastes have been found to be beneficial in strengthening tooth surfaces and preventing tooth decay.

If you are unsure whether your toothpaste contains fluoride, you may wish to ask your dental professional. Your oral health professional will also be able to advise about other ways to manage your oral health, such as flossing your teeth or using additional products, such as tooth mousse or mouthwashes and, of course, getting your teeth checked regularly. It is much easier to manage problems if they are detected early, rather than once they become severe.

“Each healthy tooth we have is a jewel”

Health Minister Dr David Clark says he’s pleased the sustained investment in children’s oral health is paying off with the proportion of children free of tooth decay at age five increasing from 51 per cent to 60 per cent.
For those aged 12 to 13 the improvement is even better, going from 47 per cent to
65 cent.

This is significant, given that evidence shows that oral health at age five predicts oral health at age 26.

“Each healthy tooth we have is a jewel,” says Clark. “It’s fantastic that more of our children are growing up free from painful tooth decay. However there is more work to do. The improvement among Ma-ori and Pasifika children, while good, does not match the gains among other children.”

The Ministry of Health is working with District Health Boards to grow the proportion of preschool children enrolled and receiving publicly funded care from the Community Oral Health Service. They are also working to keep them enrolled until age 18.

“We know there is unmet need for oral healthcare among adult New Zealanders. Working on the oral health of our tamariki now
is one way we can reduce that unmet need over time.”

Clark is keen to get wha-nau and communities on board.

On Oral Health Day, 2 November, the Dental Association asked New Zealanders to give up sugary drinks and consume only water during November. Those who registered for the Switch to Water challenge went into a draw to win high-tech, bluetooth-equipped toothbrushes, while schools could win sports equipment, cash and a visit from Olympic pole vaulter Eliza McCartney.

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