Fighting tooth decay, help is on the way


Wednesday, March 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) _ It happens to nearly everybody. The dentist frowns and announces the discovery of a cavity, followed by the injection and the whirring drill. A panel of dental experts says it doesn't have to come to that.

Cavities have been reduced sharply over the last 30 years and new preventive treatments using the latest technologies are on the way, a panel of the National Institutes of Health reported Wednesday. The panel didn't pinpoint how quickly, though, saying more research funding is required.

The key is to detect the earliest signs of dental trouble, perhaps years before those earliest indications turn into cavities, the group said.

``We were fascinated by possible new approaches,'' said panel chairman Dr. Michael C. Alfano, dean of the New York University College of Dentistry.

Tooth decay is actually an infection that can begin years before the cavity appears, he explained, and ``dentists need a way to interrupt this process.''

Current methods, such as X-rays, are not good at detecting the earliest stages, Alfano said.

But once dentists are able to develop new methods to locate suspect areas, they can then remove the bacterial film that causes the damage and strengthen the damaged teeth, he said.

``There is potential for healing, for restoring damaged enamel ... if things aren't allowed to progress too far,'' said Dr. Russell V. Luepker of the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.

Dentists are looking at technologies like fiber optics, lasers and digital imaging systems as possible ways to locate the trouble spots.

The panel urged more research money to study those technologies and also called for a greater emphasis by insurance companies on preventive care rather than merely treatment.

The 13-member panel also stressed that there is plenty that people can do right now to improve their dental health.

``We have in our hands already today a mixture of methods for preventing infection,'' said Dr. Roy C. Page, director of the Regional Clinical Dental Research Center at the University of Washington.

They urged cutting back on sugars by using chewing gums sweetened with xylitol and sorbitol, for example.

And the panel endorsed a number of current methods to prevent cavities and treat teeth, including:

_ Treatment with fluoride gels one to two times a year.

_ Applying fluoride varnish to permanent teeth. (No benefit was found to applying the varnish to primary teeth.)

_ Using toothpaste containing non-cancer causing sweeteners such as xylitol.

_ Brushing with toothpaste containing fluoride.