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Are Cavities Contagious?

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Are Cavities Contagious?

You’re halfway through the grocery store when your toddler drops her pacifier and it hits the ground.

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The countdown starts.


If you don’t get that pacifier back into her mouth you know she’s going to scream — and no one around you wants to hear that. So, with no sink or water fountain in sight, you wipe it off on your shirt and pop it into your own mouth for good measure. The thought crosses your mind that you might pass your baby a cold, but that’s a chance you’ll just have to take.

It never even occurs to you that you might also be passing her … cavities?

Yes, believe it or not, cavities are contagious.

According to Dr. Barry Setzer, a dentist in the pediatric dentistry office Setzer, Cochran, Soares and Hubbard in Jacksonville, tooth decay is a bacterial disease. In fact, he said it’s the most common disease known to man and five times more prevalent than asthma.

“When a baby is born the bacteria that causes decay is not in the mouth,” Dr. Setzer said. “It needs teeth to grow on. So, when the baby’s first tooth erupts the bacteria is transferred from caregiver to child.”

Dr. Setzer added that the more decay in the caregiver’s mouth, the more decay they can pass on to the child. So, if your own teeth have lots of fillings and other evidence of dental work, you’ve got more bacteria to share.


And he said that caregivers can also pass the bacteria to children through tasting food before feeding a child and through kissing.

So what’s a parent to do? You’re certainly not going to stop kissing your baby. How do you keep from passing on cavity-causing bacteria?

“It’s very important that the parents have good oral hygiene, well-repaired dentition and well-controlled gingival health,” Dr. Setzer said.

(Translation: Brush and floss regularly and visit a dentist at least twice a year to make sure your own teeth and gums are healthy.)

As you might imagine, it’s not enough for your child to just dab around her mouth with a My Little Pony toothbrush and some candy-tasting toothpaste. To fight bacteria, some real brushing has to happen. That’s why, Dr. Setzer said, parents should brush and floss their children’s teeth for them until the children have the dexterity to do it for themselves. He says the indicator for that dexterity is when the child is able to handle a knife and fork on their own.

“To make it easier, let the child do it first and then tell the child that mommy or daddy needs to check and help finish,” Dr. Setzer suggested. “Other tricks are to take the brushing out of the bathroom, lay the child down on the couch with their head in your lap and dry brush. For babies, wipe the teeth off with a gauze or cloth baby diaper when the child is on the changing table. For older children, sit on the toilet seat and have the child at eye level while you do the brushing.”

Dr. Setzer acknowledged that a fidgety child might not stand still long enough for brushing and a full flossing. He said in that case you should “triage” the teeth to floss, focusing on the back ones first because they’re the ones most prone to get decay.

Finally, all is not lost even if you do share some bacteria with your baby. By brushing and flossing regularly, using fluoride mouthwashes when they’re old enough and making early and regular visits to a dentist, your child can stay ahead of tooth decay.

Need some reassurance? Dr. Setzer said that with many fillings, crowns and even root canal treatments, he and his wife were both at high risk for passing on tooth decay — but to this day their 33-year-old daughter has never had a cavity.


What every parent needs to know to prevent cavities:

  • Children should use a toothpaste that has the American Dental Association crest on it. This means the toothpaste has been tested for efficacy.
  • Limit snacks. Tooth decay is more frequent in children who eat little bits of food all day as it creates a constant acid bath in the mouth.
  • Make sure your children drink water with fluoride in it. Jacksonville already has natural fluoride in the aquifer at the ideal amount. Cook with and drink the tap water. Also, any drinks bottled in north Florida likely have fluoride in them.
  • Have your child rinse with fluoride mouthwash once a day once the child can predictably spit it out.
  • Limit sweets to once a week or only with meals. The frequency of consumption is more important than the quantity.
  • Don’t let your baby go to bed with a bottle. If you breast feed, don’t let your baby sleep in your bed and feed throughout the night. About 15 percent of babies who go to bed with milk in their mouths get decay, sometimes very severe.


The First Dentist Visit

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics and pediatric dentists all recommend that children see a dentist by their first birthday or when their first tooth erupts, Dr. Setzer said. After the child’s second birthday he or she should typically see a dentist every six months. However, if a child has special needs or is medically compromised, Dr. Setzer says they should begin seeing a dentist at six months of age and every six months thereafter.


By: Rebekah Sanderlin