Tooth Decay in Children: Care Instructions

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Your Care Instructions

Cross section of a tooth with a cavity

Tooth decay is damage to a tooth caused by plaque. Plaque is a thin film of bacteria that sticks to the teeth above and below the gum line. If plaque isn't removed from the teeth, it can build up and harden into tartar. The bacteria in plaque and tartar use sugars in food to make acids. These acids can cause tooth decay and gum disease.

Any part of your child's tooth can decay, from the roots below the gum line to the chewing surface. Decay can affect the outer layer (enamel) and inner layer (dentin) of your child's teeth. The deeper the decay, the worse the damage.

Untreated tooth decay will get worse and may lead to tooth loss. If your child has a small hole (cavity), your dentist can repair it by removing the decay and filling the hole. If the tooth has deeper decay, your child may need more treatment. A very badly damaged tooth may have to be removed.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your dentist if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

How can you care for your child at home?

If your child has pain and swelling from a decayed tooth:

  • Give acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for pain. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • Do not give your child two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • Put ice or a cold pack on the cheek over the tooth for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your child's skin.

To prevent tooth decay

Experts recommend that your child have a dental examination within 6 months after the first teeth appear or at 12 months of age, whichever comes first. Your child's dentist will recommend how often to have routine checkups. Many people should see their dentists once or twice a year. Your dentist may recommend fluoride treatments or a sealant.

  • Don't put your baby to bed with a bottle of juice, milk, formula, or other sugary liquid. This raises the chance of tooth decay.
  • Give your toddler liquids in a cup rather than a bottle. Drinking from a bottle makes it more likely that your toddler will start to have tooth decay.
  • Give your child healthy foods to eat. These include whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Cheese, yogurt, and milk are good for teeth and make great snacks.
  • Rinse or brush your child's teeth after he or she eats sugary foods, especially sticky, sweet foods like candy or raisins.
  • Brush your child's teeth two times a day, morning and night. Floss his or her teeth once a day.
  • Make sure that your family practices good dental habits. Keep your own teeth and gums healthy. This lowers the risk of giving the bacteria from your mouth to your child. And avoid sharing spoons and other utensils with your child.

When should you call for help?

Call your dentist now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks on the gum leading from a tooth.
    • Pus draining from the gum around a tooth.
    • A fever.
  • Your child has a toothache.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your dentist if your child has any problems.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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