Most parents know children need regular fluoride treatments to keep teeth healthy. Many people don’t know that adults need fluoride, too. The Centers for Disease Control reports that “water fluoridation reduces tooth decay by about 25 percent over a person’s lifetime.” The words “over a lifetime” include the years of adulthood when we use our teeth to manage our food, from biting and chewing as well as communicating–smiling and speaking.
Why do adults, who have all their permanent teeth, need fluoride? Because our teeth lose minerals every day through acids and plaque, and they take on minerals from what we eat and drink. That exchange of minerals needs to stay in balance. If the balance tips toward de-mineralization (losing minerals), the danger of cavities, even in adults, rises sharply. Fluoride is a mineral that exists naturally in food, water (even ocean water) and is added to many city water supplies to encourage re-mineralization through the simple act of drinking water.
“Sometimes the fluoride in water, though, isn’t enough,” says Dr. Carol Ford from her Phoenix office. “The most common reason is dry mouth, or not enough saliva,” Dr. Ford explains.
According to the American Dental Association, “Saliva contains the minerals that maintain the integrity of the enamel surface and thus is the major [cavity] preventive agent. Saliva enhances enamel protection by providing high levels of calcium and phosphate ions at the tooth surface.” Saliva production can be reduced by medications such as antihistamines and anti-anxiety medications or by mouth breathing. When the mouth is dry, most people reach for a hard candy or gum containing sugar. “Candy and gum may increase the saliva flow in the mouth,” says Dr. Ford, “but it also introduces sugar, which feeds the plaque bacteria. Once the plaque bacteria are fed, they coat and damage the tooth, leaching out minerals and causing decay,” Dr. Ford explains.
It’s important to ask your dentist if you are getting enough fluoride. It’s not just how much of the mineral is in the city water (Phoenix adds CDC-recommended levels of fluoride to the water), but what you eat, how much saliva you produce and how often you swallow. Together, you and your dentist need to decide if you would benefit from an adult fluoride treatment.