Healthy Smiles at Halloween

Sink your teeth into simple strategies for preventing tooth decay during the sweetest time of the year. 

(Published in Village Living Magazine, October 2012)

With the excitement of Halloween just around the corner, the last thing we want is to dampen spirits with the boring topic of tooth decay. The truth is, your family can enjoy the enchantment of Halloween (including treats!) without fearing cavities, if you follow a few simple suggestions. 

First, let’s let the skeletons out of the closet:

The development of cavities involves many factors, chiefly diet. Many people are surprised to hear that all carbohydrates, not just sugars, are the real culprits at hand. Bacteria in dental plaque feed off of the sugars from the breakdown of carbohydrates, producing an acid that erodes teeth and creates cavities. Carbohydrates come in many forms, some sugary (like lollipops and gummy bears) and, some not (such as the potato chips, pretzels and goldfish crackers parents often try to swap in to replace candy). 

The result:

Even when we think we are outsmarting cavity culprits by substituting sweets with seemingly tooth-friendly alternatives, these are often not necessarily any better for oral health. Anything that clings to the teeth, or is consumed for a prolonged period of time, gives bacteria something to feed on for longer, creating more acid and resultant decay.

Things to consider:

Baby teeth have much thinner enamel than adult teeth, so children are much more prone to the effects of acid erosion. These effects can also be much more deleterious among children, tending to lead rapidly to extremely large cavities, and requiring monitoring on a regular basis. And, those baby teeth are important for so many reasons. In addition to allowing proper nutrition, speech, esthetics and even self-confidence, they maintain space for the arrival of permanent teeth. Keeping baby teeth for as long as they are meant to be in the mouth (some until their host is 11 to 12 years old) helps promote the development of children’s jaws, often lessening or even eliminating the need for orthodontic intervention in later years. 

What to do:

Even as a dentist, I would never deprive my two boys of Halloween's excitement and token candy. But, there are critical strategies to consider for successfully avoiding cavities at this risky time of year:

1) Separate candy into ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ have piles. Remember that hard or sticky candies prolong high acid levels. Watch for sugar-free gum, and put it aside for later.

2)  Let kids go bananas on their winnings in short, confined spurts. This is better than slowly snacking on candy over several days (or even weeks), as it is frequency and time that allow enamel-corroding acid to decay teeth. Plus, rigorous tooth brushing usually follows a candy binge. Of course, the number and scope of these ‘binges’ should be managed with overall health in mind!

3)  Plan these candy binges for after mealtime. With any luck, this will cut down the amount of candy consumed. Also, saliva production increases during mealtimes and helps neutralize acid produced by the mouth's bacteria. Don’t forget to plan an activity to burn off those extra calories.

4)  If you can’t brush right afterward, a piece of sugarless gum will keep the saliva flowing, which helps reduce dangerous acid buildup.  

As always, don’t forget the usual stuff:

5) Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss daily.

6) Visit a dentist regularly for checkups and more information on maintaining your oral health.

Lastly, although we can’t entirely avoid candy at Halloween, consider alternatives to giving it out. Kids also love things like sugar-free gum, stickers, small cans of Play-Doh and temporary tattoos.