Since the discovery a century ago of its beneficial effect on tooth enamel, fluoride has become an important part of tooth decay prevention. It's routinely added to toothpaste and other hygiene products, and many water utilities add minute amounts of it to their drinking water supplies. Although there have been questions about its safety, multiple studies over the last few decades have eased those concerns.
Children especially benefit from fluoride during their teeth's developing years. Some children are at high risk for decay, especially an aggressive form known as Early Childhood Caries (ECC). ECC can destroy primary (baby) teeth and cause children to lose them prematurely. This can have an adverse effect on incoming permanent teeth, causing them to erupt in the wrong positions creating a bad bite (malocclusion).
For children at high risk for decay, dentists often recommend applying topical fluoride directly to the teeth as added protection against disease. These concentrations of fluoride are much higher than in toothpaste and remain on the teeth for much longer. Topical applications have been shown not only to reduce the risk of new cavities, but to also stop and reverse early decay.
Children usually receive these applications during an office visit after their regular dental cleaning. There are three different ways to apply it: gel, foam or varnish. To prevent swallowing some of the solution (which could induce vomiting, headache or stomach pain) the dentist will often insert a tray similar to a mouth guard to catch any excess solution. Varnishes and a few gels are actually painted on the teeth.
The American Dental Association has intensely studied the use of topical fluoride and found its application can result in substantial decreases in cavities and lost teeth. They've concluded this benefit far outweighs the side effects from ingesting the solution in children six years and older. With proper precautions and waiting to eat for thirty minutes after an application, the possibility of ingestion can be reduced even further.
While topical fluoride can be effective, it's only one part of a good dental care strategy for your child. Consistent daily brushing and flossing, a nutritious diet low in added sugar, and regular dental visits still remain the backbone of preventive care.