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Teeth - decay and erosion

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Tooth decay is preventable. How you look after your child's teeth from the time they are babies will make a difference to how they grow and how healthy they are.


Teeth are some of your children's most important possessions. How you look after their teeth from the time they are babies will make a difference to how they grow and how healthy they are. This means not only how you clean them but also how you protect them from things that can harm teeth. Tooth decay is preventable.

There are several other topics on this site about teeth and teeth care:

Tooth decay

  • Early signs of tooth decay look like white chalky lines near the gum line or brown spots. SA Dental Service recommend lifting your child's top lip once a month to look for early signs of tooth decay. There are pictures showing the early signs in the SA Dental Service poster 'Lift the lip'.  
  • It causes serious damage to teeth and is important even in baby teeth, because baby teeth prepare the way for healthy development of permanent teeth.
  • Decay also causes pain and sleep problems.
  • It can affect the way the child looks and what she is able to eat.
  • If a decayed tooth has to be taken out, it can mean that the remaining teeth move across and there could be less room for the permanent teeth when they come.
  • Many children who have serious decay need to have a general anaesthetic to treat the damaged teeth.
  • Dental treatment can be expensive.
  • If your child has any sign of decay, see a dental professional as soon as possible.
  • Good tooth care in the early years prevents decay. See Teeth - dental care for children.

Recent evidence suggests that there is more tooth decay in children who are around people who smoke. The more exposure to smoke, the more tooth decay children have.

Tooth erosion

Tooth erosion happens when acids damage and dissolve the layers of enamel that cover the tooth. This can cause permanent damage to the tooth.

  • Acids can come from what the child eats, from medicines (such as Vitamin C tablets that are chewed in the mouth) and from stomach acids from persistent reflux.
  • Acidic foods such as soft drinks, cordials or fruit juices (eg. orange juice) can partially dissolve the surface of tooth enamel.   
  • Solid fruit is also acidic, but chewing causes an increase in the amount of saliva in the mouth. Saliva 'neutralises' the acid.
  • Avoid brushing teeth straight after having acidic food or drinks, or vomiting. Instead, smear some toothpaste on teeth to freshen the mouth and help strengthen the enamel.
  • Brush after 30 minutes.
  • Neutral (non-acidic) food or drinks do not damage the enamel.

In the hour or so following drinking acidic foods and drinks, the tooth surface hardens again.

To help prevent erosion:

    • limit acidic food, fruit juice and other acidic drinks
    • chew sugar free gum
    • brush teeth and gums with a soft toothbrush morning and night with fluoride toothpaste (if the child is 18 months or older) 
    • spit out toothpaste - don't rinse.

    Remember, plain tap water is the best drink. Have a look at the SA Dental pamphlet  Tap water - the best drink for everyone.

    • Encourage your child to drink from a cup, so that a bottle is not used for drinks other than formula after about 6 months.
    • Encourage children to drink all of their drink at once, not in little sips.
    • If you use a 'feeding cup', children are likely to drink more slowly from it, so it is best to put plain tap water in it.
    • Give children fruit and fruit juice only at meal times. Don't give them at bedtime after teeth cleaning.
    • Drinking juice through a straw can help to protect teeth. The juice is swallowed from the back of the mouth and does not stay near teeth.
    • A drink of water after eating or taking medicines will help to clean the mouth.

    Resource: SA Dental postcard 'Dental erosion'.

    Sugar - what it can do to teeth

    Sugar in food and drink can start the process of tooth decay.

    • Tooth decay is caused when bacteria in the mouth combine with the sugars and starches in food to produce acid.
    • The acid eats away the tooth enamel leaving holes.

    Have a look at the SA Dental Service pamphlet Sugar.

    Asthma inhalers and teeth

    Asthma management plans which involve the use of puffers to prevent and treat asthma symptoms have led to a dramatic fall in asthma deaths, even though more and more people have been diagnosed with asthma.

    The benefits for breathing of using puffers are clear, but the powder in the puffers can cause problems with teeth.

    • Many of the powders are acidic, and can erode the tooth enamel when used regularly.
    • This can cause teeth to be sensitive and can cause holes in the teeth.

    The tooth problems can be reduced if children rinse their mouths with water after using a puffer and if they clean their teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride protects the surface of the teeth.


    South Australia

    Children aged up to 18 years are eligible to attend the School Dental Service. Dental care is free for all toddlers and preschoolers at the School Dental Service. To find your local clinic, visit Dental clinics After hours call healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222 for advice on further care options.

    Books for parents

    • Pamphlet 'Zero to Six' - obtainable from the South Australian Dental Service, Health Promotion Unit and Child and Family Health Centres.

    References and more to read

    South Australian Dental Service
    Phone 1300 008 222

     Raising Children Network 

     Better Health Channel (Victorian Government) 

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    The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

    This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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