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Tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease in the US. And despite brushing, flossing, and regular checkups, over half of all third graders have cavities, causing pain, infections, and problems eating, speaking, and learning.

While two-thirds of the people in the US have fluoride in their drinking water, the chewing surfaces of kids’ teeth need extra protection against cavities and tooth decay. Dental sealants, a coating applied to the surfaces of teeth to keep out food, germs, and bacteria can protect kids against cavities and tooth decay for up to 10 years. According to the CDC, children ages, 6-11 without sealants have almost 3 times more cavities than those with sealants.

But despite the importance of dental sealants, many parents don’t know much about them— what dental sealants are, how they work to protect kids’ teeth, why all kids need them, what the office procedure entails, and whether dental sealants are safe. So here’s everything you need to know about this quick and affordable way to prevent costly and painful dental procedures down the road.

What Are Dental Sealants?

Dental sealants are the easiest way to prevent cavities

Teeth can have deep grooves on their chewing surfaces; the back teeth have fissures, and some front teeth have cingulum pits—a convex portion of the tooth. Dental sealants are thin coatings of material that are painted on the chewing surfaces of teeth to essentially close up deep grooves and protect the depressions of your teeth from food, bacteria, and plaque that regular brushing, rinsing, and flossing can’t reach.

Dental sealants have lasting benefits

Sealants can have long-term tooth decay prevention and can therefore prevent costly and invasive dental work such as fillings, caps, or crowns if the patient is cavity prone. Dental sealants prevent food and ultimately bacteria from filling the deep recesses of teeth. They are a quick, painless, and proven way to protect permanent back teeth where the majority of cavities in children happen.

Kids are the best candidates for dental sealants

While children as young as three and adults at any age are candidates for dental sealants, it makes the most sense to apply sealants before decay begins. Dental sealants for kids should be applied soon after the first and second permanent molars (the back teeth) come in, usually around the age of five, before tooth decay has a chance to attack these teeth. Other permanent teeth with deep pits and grooves also need to be sealed. Waiting too long to get sealants limits their effectiveness as the patient may already have cavities that require filling.

What Does The Procedure Entail?

Getting sealants is quick and painless

The procedure is completely non-invasive and does not require any numbing anesthesia. The patient’s teeth are thoroughly cleaned and then isolated with cotton rolls. A mild acid is placed on the surface of the teeth and is then rinsed and dried thoroughly. Next, the sealant is flowed into the grooves and onto the teeth with a brush and it is then cured with a special light. In most patients, the procedure is quick. A well-trained dental assistant or hygienist can place 16 sealants in less than 10 minutes. Most kids do great during the procedure, but sometimes they have trouble with their gag reflex and that can make placing the sealant a little challenging.

You usually get sealants on back teeth only

Dental sealants for kids are applied primarily on premolar and molar teeth (back teeth) because their surfaces are rough and uneven and have small grooves and pits that toothbrushing can’t reach. Therefore, these teeth need extra protection from food and germs that easily get stuck there. Dentists may also place sealants on incisors and cuspids (front teeth) with cingulum pits and fissures.

Are Sealants Safe?

Sealants have no side effects

Dental sealants for kids are 100% safe and very effective in preventing tooth disease. The procedure is quick, painless, and non-invasive.  With the exception of a small number of patients who report that their bite feels off for a day or two, there are no known side effects from the sealant material.

You’ll need to avoid certain foods to make them last

While no significant dietary changes are needed following the procedure, patients should avoid gummy candy, taffy, and other sticky, chewy foods that can adhere to their teeth and remove the newly applied sealant.  Avoid hard candy, nuts, and ice which can chip off the sealant. Well-placed sealants can last ten or more years and are highly wear-resistant. During regular checkups, a dentist or dental hygienist will check the sealants for minor chips or excessive wear which can be quickly and easily repaired with the application of additional sealant.

Sealants can be applied during regular dental checkups

Nowadays, most dental offices provide sealants as routine care during regular oral check-ups. Dental sealants for kids can be applied by a dentist, dental assistant, or dental hygienist. Best of all, because the procedure is considered to be a preventative treatment, the cost for the application is covered by many insurance plans for kids under 18.