The most likely location for a cavity to develop in your mouth is on the chewing surfaces of the back teeth. Run your tongue over this area in your mouth, and you will feel the reason why: These surfaces are not smooth, as other areas of your teeth are. Instead, they are filled with tiny grooves referred to as “pits and fissures,” which trap bacteria and food particles. The bristles on a toothbrush can’t always reach all the way into these dark, moist little crevices. This creates the perfect conditions for tooth decay; in fact, research has shown that almost everybody has a 95% chance of eventually experiencing cavities in the pits and grooves of their teeth. This is why dental sealants were created!
Sealants are thin, liquid coatings that harden on the chewing surfaces of teeth and are designed to prevent the intrusion of bacteria and other debris into the deep crevices on the tops of your teeth. The application is fast and comfortable and can effectively protect teeth for many years. Sealants show a great deal of effectiveness in preventing cavities—even on teeth where decay has begun. In fact, research has shown that sealants actually stop cavities when placed on top of a slightly decayed tooth by sealing off the supply of nutrients to the bacteria that causes a cavity.
Sealants actually were developed about 50 years ago but didn’t become commonly used until the 1970s. Today, sealants are becoming widely popular and effective; young children are great candidates for preventative measures like sealants (especially on molars) because in many cases, decay has not set in (although plenty of adults decide to receive sealants as well).
What’s more, a child’s newly erupted permanent teeth are not as resistant to decay as adult teeth are. The hard enamel coating that protects the teeth changes as it ages to become stronger. Fluoride, which is found in toothpaste and some drinking water — and in treatments provided at the dental office — can strengthen enamel, but, again, it’s hard to get fluoride into those pits and fissures on a regular basis. Fortunately, dental sealants are a good solution to this problem. A sealed tooth is far less likely to develop a cavity, require more expensive dental treatment later on, or, most importantly, cause your child pain.
You can think of a sealant as a mini plastic filling, though please be assured (and reassure your child) that it doesn’t “count” as having a cavity filled. Because tooth enamel does not contain any nerves, placing a sealant is painless and does not routinely require numbing shots.
First, the tooth or teeth to be sealed are examined, and if any minimal decay is found, it will be gently removed. The tooth will then be cleaned and dried. Then a solution that will slightly roughen or “etch” the surface is applied, to make the sealing material adhere better. The tooth is then rinsed and dried again. The sealant is then painted on the tooth in liquid form and hardens in about a minute, sometimes with the help of a special curing light. That’s all there is to it!
Sealed teeth require the same conscientious dental hygiene as unsealed teeth. You should continue to brush and floss your teeth daily and have regular professional cleanings. Checking for wear and tear on the sealants is important, though they should last for up to 10 years. During this time, you will also benefit from a preventive treatment proven to reduce decay by more than 70 percent!