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The Role Fluoride Plays in Preventing Cavities

Fluoride Slows Breakdown of Enamel and Speeds Remineralization

Tooth decay (cavities) is the single most prevalent childhood disease. Tooth decay affects nearly 60% of children and causes problems that often last long into adulthood affecting health, education, employment opportunities and well-being. Untreated tooth decay can cause pain and infection that can lead to problems with nutrition, growth, school readiness and speech problems. Children in the United States miss hundreds of thousands of school days each year due to toothaches or dental problems. In addition to brushing, flossing and regular checkups, avoiding snacks that contain sugars and starches can help teeth and gums stay healthy. Instead of soda or other sugary drinks, drink fluoridated water.

How Does Fluoride Protect Our Teeth?
The relationship between fluoride and tooth decay is complex and probably not yet fully understood. However, it is known that fluoride interferes with the process of tooth decay in at least four ways:

  1. If children ingest sufficient fluoride during the period of enamel development (up to 7 years of age) the fluoride alters the structure of the developing enamel making it more resistant to acid attack. This was originally thought to be the most important mechanism of fluoride; however, with advances in knowledge this is now understood to be the least important mechanism.


  1. When teeth are subjected to alternating demineralization and remineralization as described above, the presence of low levels of fluoride in the plaque and saliva both encourages remineralization and ensures that the enamel crystals that are laid down are of improved quality. In other words, low levels of fluoride in the mouth gradually improve the strength of the tooth enamel and its ability to resist acid attack.


  1. The third way in which fluoride works is by reducing the ability of the plaque bacteria to produce acid. This is a major factor in the prevention of tooth decay.


  1. A fourth, and probably minor effect of fluoride is that, if sufficient fluoride is ingested during childhood when the teeth are developing, it affects the depth of the fissures (grooves) on the biting surfaces of the teeth. In children who grow up in areas where the drinking water is fluoridated these grooves in the teeth tend to be shallower, thus reducing the ability of plaque to remain undisturbed.

How Can I Prevent Cavities Using Fluoride?
Common fluoride sources are fluoridated drinking water, toothpaste and some mouth rinses. Inform your dentist if your drinking water is not fluoridated. He or she may recommend that you use high-concentration fluoride treatments.

Drinking Water

  • Adding fluoride to your drinking water is one of the easiest and most cost-effective methods of protecting children and adults from tooth decay.
  • Not certain about the fluoride levels in your water system? Ask your dentist.
  • If your water does not contain fluoride, your dentist may recommend prescribing fluoride tablets or drops for you and your family to help protect your teeth from cavities.
  • Fluoridated water is a great substitution for soft drinks as it helps protect your teeth while minimizing the damage done to them through sugar intake at the same time.
  • Bottled water may not include fluoride so while it may seem like the safe thing to do now, think about the fluoride you will be missing from your tap water.


  • Toothpastes containing fluoride help prevent cavities in both children and adults.
  • You should always supervise your children when they’re brushing their teeth.
  • Children under the age of 6 should only use a pea size dab of toothpaste when it contains fluoride.


  • Rinsing your mouth with mouthwash that contains fluoride is another way to help protect you and your family from cavities.
  • There are many brands of mouthwash available that now contain fluoride.

Professional Topical Fluoride Treatment
Your dentist can apply fluoride to the teeth as a gel, foam, or varnish. These treatments contain a much higher level of fluoride than the amount found in toothpastes and mouth rinses. For those in need of an extra fluoride boost, fluoride supplements are available as liquids and tablets, and must be prescribed by your dentist, pediatrician, or family doctor.
When teeth are developing in infants and children between the ages of 6 months and 16 years, we’re very used to our dentist talking about getting enough fluoride. But adults benefit from fluoride, too. New research shows that topical fluoride – from toothpastes, mouth rinses, and fluoride treatments – are as important in fighting tooth decay as in strengthening developing teeth.
Sources:, British Fluoridation Society

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