When dental hygienist Pamela Poon screens the mouths of tots, it’s not uncommon for her to see children with a cavity who haven’t reached their first birthday.
“Cavities are totally preventable,” Poon said. “Kids don’t ever need to have a cavity.”
In her effort to help protect children from tooth decay, Poon works as a community dental hygienist for the Vancouver Island Health Authority’s "Smiles First" program.
On the third Wednesday of each month (see below for the day in other municipalities) Poon travels to the West Shore Health Unit to check out children’s teeth. The four-year program is free and offered to children who haven’t yet entered kindergarten.
Poon gives the children a dental screening and talks to children and their parents about oral care. If needed she can apply fluoride varnish if she deems the child high risk for tooth decay. She will also refer the children to see a dentist if she see signs of tooth decay or possible cavities.
If a cavity is detected in a child's mouth, it’s not uncommon for the child to have to go under general anesthesia to have it fixed.
“If it’s a small cavity they might fix it (in a dental office) but a lot of kids aren’t keen on that,” Poon said. “If they have to pull out a bunch of teeth, they might put them under.”
If a child requires several teeth to be pulled, Poon said it is often because the teeth have decayed too far to do anything else.
“Dental surgery is the No. 1 day surgery for kids in B.C. under five,” Poon said, adding that there is a three- to six-month wait list. “There are so many kids with (tooth decay) and it’s sad.”
It takes about a year and a half after each tooth arrives for it to fully harden, which leaves young teeth more vulnerable to decay. The first sign of potential decay is a bright white spot on a tooth. “The white spot legion is where the tooth has been weakened a bit,” Poon said. “Decay can happen pretty quick.”
It can take as little as two months from the sign of a white legion until the tooth becomes brown with decay. If caught early a white spot can be reversed with diet and the use of a fluoride varnish.
Poon suggests limiting the amount of sweet and sticky foods in a child’s diet. If a child is going to eat items such as raisins, granola bars or fruit leather, it’s better to do at the end of a meal rather than as a snack.
“At the end of a meal there is more saliva in the mouth,” Poon said, which helps keep food from sticking to the teeth.
Some children get cavities before they even start on solid foods. Poon said babies who fall asleep breast-feeding or with a bottle can have the milk pool around their teeth which leads to decay.
It’s common for parents to tell Poon that baby teeth don’t matter and will eventually fall out, but she counters that with the importance of baby teeth when it comes to eating, speech and self-esteem.
“There are kids going to school missing six or seven teeth because they were pulled out due to decay,” Poon said.
Poon suggests all babies and children brush their teeth at least twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste. Children should start having dental screenings or checkup about six months after the first tooth comes in.
“Not everyone has access to, or thinks about oral care, but it’s completely linked to your overall health,” Poon said.
While taking care of children’s teeth is important, Poon said it’s important for parents to get regular dental care as well.
“Parents can pass on pass the (cavity causing) bacteria onto their children, even by kissing them,” Poon said. “Yes your kids are important, but so are you.”
The next Smile First program is available at the West Shore Health Unit on Sept. 21. To book an appointment call 250-519-3490. To speak to a VIHA dental hygienist call 250-519-5100.
The Smiles First Program is offered the third week each month across Greater Victoria.
Esquimalt Health Unit, 530 Fraser St.
To book an appointment call 250-519-5311.
Saanich Health Unit, 3995 Quadra St., second floor
To book an appointment call 250-519-5100.
West Shore Health Unit, 345 Wale Rd.
To book an appointment call 250-519-3490.
Peninsula Health Unit, 102-2170 Mt. Newton X Rd.
To book an appointment call 250-544-2400.
Victoria Health Unit
1947 Cook St.
To book an appointment call 250-388-2200.