The first ever survey of oral health in three-year-olds in England has been conducted by Public Health England, which released its report this week. It made shocking reading – some 12 per cent of toddlers across the country were reported to have experienced dental decay.
On average, these children had more than three of their 20 primary teeth decayed, missing or filled.
In the South West, three regions – North Devon, Torbay (both 13 per cent) and Torridge (15 per cent) – had results that were higher than the national average. The best recorded result for our region was East Devon at four per cent.
While the figures showed that, in actual fact, there has been an improvement in dental health since the introduction of fluoride toothpaste in 1976, the modern diet which is high in sugar is taking a toll on our children’s teeth.
Tooth decay is caused by consuming too many sugary foods and drinks too often, and is exacerbated by poor attention to oral hygiene and health. We know that if sugar is reduced in the diet, and children brush their teeth at least twice a day (once before bedtime) using a fluoride toothpaste, the risk of tooth decay is reduced.
An aspect of paediatric tooth decay identified by the Public Health England report was ‘Early Childhood Caries’. This affects the upper front teeth and can spread rapidly to other teeth – it is related to consuming sugary drinks in baby bottles or sipping cups. Early Childhood Caries can be avoided by giving only breast milk (or infant formula) and water as drinks to infants under 1 year of age. Full fat cow’s milk and water are suitable drinks for children over the age of one year, and from age two, semi-skimmed milk can be given if your child eats well. All types of fruit juices, squashes and fizzy drinks are best avoided completely in this young age group. However if fruit juice is given it should be diluted with water and given in a free flowing cup with a meal.
The reaction to the report was, unsurprisingly, one of shock, with questions asked about what more could be done to protect the health of our children’s teeth.
Conversely, questions were also raised about the importance of the findings of the report, with some arguing that if children are going to lose their primary teeth anyway, why the fuss?
The answer to that is several-fold and easy: having a tooth filled or extracted is no fun if you’re an adult, but for children it can be a difficult experience which may involve a general anaesthetic – with all the risks that brings. In addition, infection or decay in milk teeth can have a negative impact on the formation of adult teeth.
Too many children are having to have teeth extracted. Shocking figures from the NHS earlier this year revealed that having teeth pulled is the most common reason why children are admitted to hospital. Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that for the year beginning April 2013 more than 25,000 children aged between five and nine were admitted to hospital for dental treatments. Put into context, the next most frequent condition for the hospitalisation of children in this age group was tonsillitis at more than 11,000.
In line with recent reports on diet and wider health, sugar was identified as the villain of the piece. According to some figures, the average Briton consumes an astounding 238 teaspoons of sugar a week – that’s more than one kilo. But if you asked the majority of the population how much sugar they ate the amount would be much lower: this is because so much of our western, processed diet contains hidden sugar.
And it’s not just in the obvious culprits, such as fizzy drinks and confectionery. Sugar is lurking in any number of seemingly innocuous everyday foodstuffs, such as salad dressings, peanut butter, breakfast cereals, bread, pasta sauces – the list goes on. Recent reports have highlighted smoothies and juices which, previously, had been accepted as legitimate contributors to a healthy ‘five a day’. This is due to the release of natural sugars during the juicing process which damage teeth and, because they are so highly concentrated, contribute to our high calorie intakes.