Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral found in water in varying amounts and also in certain foods, including tea and fish. Fluoride’s main benefit is in helping reduce the risk of tooth decay, which is why it's added to many brands of toothpaste and, in some areas, to the water supply through a process called fluoridation.
Fluoride disrupts the process of tooth decay by:
- changing the structure of developing enamel, making it more resistant to acid attack
- encouraging better quality enamel to form that's more resistant to acid attack
- reducing plaque bacteria’s ability to produce acid, which is the cause of tooth decay
In addition, people with certain conditions may be at increased risk of tooth decay and would therefore benefit from additional fluoride treatment. They include people with:
- Dry mouth conditions: caused by diseases such as Sjögren's syndrome, certain medications, and head and neck radiation treatment and makes someone more prone to tooth decay.
- Gum disease: can expose more of your tooth and tooth roots to bacteria increasing the chance of tooth decay.
- History of frequent cavities: If you have one cavity every year or every other year, you might benefit from additional fluoride.
- Presence of crowns and/or bridges or braces: These treatments can put teeth at risk for decay at the point where the crown meets the underlying tooth structure or around the brackets of orthodontic appliances.
- Dentists recommend that children and adults should brush their teeth using toothpaste that contains fluoride. For those who are particularly prone to tooth decay, mouthwash, gels, tablets or toothpastes containing higher concentrations of fluoride are also available.
- Fluoride varnish is another treatment that can be used to help protect against tooth decay. The varnish contains high levels of fluoride and is painted onto the surface of both baby and adult teeth. It works by strengthening the tooth enamel, making it more resistant to decay.
- Fluoride is safe and effective when used as directed but can be hazardous at high doses (the "toxic" dosage level varies based on an individual's weight). Hence, it is important for parents to carefully supervise their children's use of fluoride-containing products and to keep fluoride products out of reach of children, especially children under the age of 6.
- Excess fluoride can cause defects in the tooth's enamel that range from barely noticeable white specks or streaks to cosmetically objectionable brown discoloration. These defects are known as fluorosis and occur when the teeth are forming -- usually in children younger than 6 years.
- Use only a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste on a child's toothbrush and be cautious about using fluoridated toothpaste in children younger than age 6. Children younger than 6 years of age are more likely to swallow toothpaste instead of spitting it out.