Health in the UK Sugar and teeth

The State of UK Children’s Teeth – Guest Post by Dental Specialist Tony Kilcoyne

Tooth decay is STILL the third most common reason for children to be hospitalised in England; yet, it’s one of the easiest conditions to prevent, if we follow some simple steps without fail.

Clearly something has to change, but what and how? Read below (see Table 1) for some great practical everyday tips you and your family can start using straight away, as well as some facts, figures and myths about dental health. Dental prevention can save you pain, inconvenience and yes, it even saves money and adds greatly to your quality of life, ability to eat and digest food properly and who wouldn’t want a healthy good looking smile too! However currently the statistics don’t look good and sadly in many other countries abroad, they still describe bad teeth as ‘English mouth’, but why might this be?

Tooth Decay

Well good, or in this case BAD habits start young. Countless surveys reveal the gruelling truth about tooth decay’s pervasiveness at startlingly young ages. Despite showing signs of improvement from 2008 statistics, a 2012 Public Health England survey found that still twenty-seven percent of all five-year-olds in the UK suffer from tooth decay, with Northerners exhibiting more cases than the South. Even worse, the same study found that most children had on average three to four decayed teeth. At the same time, research conducted by dental hygiene brand Aquafresh reports that forty-seven percent of children under age twelve received tooth decay diagnoses. A million children under the age of five not only have tooth decay, but already have had two fillings. Rotten milk teeth does not mean you will automatically get unhealthy second adult teeth; however, there is only one thing that causes tooth decay -SUGAR!

Sugar feeds bacteria, and bacteria grows into a ‘sticky’ clear layer called ‘plaque’, which builds up on teeth and weakens and rots them over time. Thus we brush our teeth (and gums) to remove this sticky build up of plaque bacteria on our teeth, but it is sticky and even though soft, it can be quite difficult to remove from all surfaces, especially in the grooves on the biting surfaces of teeth and in between teeth. May people are self-taught at tooth brushing and frankly they tend to do this badly, or rush brushing, or both. Thus more plaque bacteria builds up, more sugar in what we eat and drink feeds the bacteria and soon starts to rot the teeth. But guess where? Mainly in the grooves of the biting surfaces and between the teeth, making holes that get deeper and eventually reach the nerve in the tooth.

Only then, after months of neglect and bad brushing techniques, do we get toothache. So you can have holes that are painless for months and only when the decay has rotted deeply near the nerve, does it hurt. Thus waiting for pain before visiting the Dentists is a very bad idea, if you are serious about preventing problems early. So, let’s explore what we can do to improve the two worst aspects that allow our teeth to slowly rot and go bad:

Poor Brushing Habits

Properly brushing your teeth is at the core of simple mouth cleanliness and preventive approaches to cavities and decay. Unfortunately, kids can sometimes make this simple daily routine a chore – often fraught with whining complaints, to full-out hysteria at times. As a parent, don’t feel alone in the battle: one in four mums confess to regular arguments with their children when it’s time to brush up.

Fortunately, a few tips and approaches to the morning and night routine make the war on teeth barely a scuffle. Supervision is key, and parents need to stand sentinel until at least age eight, until the child has enough wrist control so they can do joined up handwriting! Invest in a timer so your kids brush for a full two-minutes and brush your teeth with your kids or have an older sibling stand-in to promote mimicry and make it fun. Best of all, this shared activity helps parents avoid slacking on effective brushing – YouGov reported over a third of Welsh people admitted they brush once or less daily.

Brush after breakfast and before bed, since teeth are especially vulnerable to decay at night, when our natural saliva wetness in the mouth dries up and allows bacteria to grow wildly, thus resulting in that dry, stick ‘morning-mouth’ you may sometimes experience. Plus, let kids pick their toothbrush and have some choice on the colour etc, as long as it’s a small-headed and a soft nylon bristle brush. Do not get large and/or hard bristles – small and soft is always best! Individuality goes a long way in encouraging enthusiasm for brushing. Lastly, use a fluoride toothpaste, but properly teach kids to spit out the toothpaste and they MUST NOT EAT IT FROM THE TUBE. Although small amounts of fluoride are very beneficial, excessive fluoride levels between ages zero to eight can, ironically, cause tooth enamel milky stains that turn brown or yellow. So just use a small pea-sized amount of toothpaste, don’t rinse out with water afterwards (as it has a beneficial topical effect afterwards) and don’t eat the toothpaste even if it tastes nice!

Dental Appointments

Alarmingly, an Aquafresh report showed that six percent of children in the UK have never visited a dentist. The NHS suggests taking your child to the dentist at least once by age two. I would however advise going when pregnant and then from Birth even if there are no baby teeth yet, because it’s all about starting with good habits, the child getting used to to the sights and sounds of a dental practice, checking the right teeth are coming through correctly AND advising on diet and brushing so your child NEVER has a cavity or gum disease. It’s called prevention and attending before there’s a problem!

Thus it’s essential that dentists look for early stages or signs of problematic mouth, gum, and tooth health. The earlier kids start going, the less anxiety and fear they associate with dental care. Often, finding dentists and making appointments causes stress, but booking sites quickly settle the matter, even handling emergency visits.

Early preventative procedures might include fluoride varnish or fissure sealants. Applying fluoride varnish to both milk and adult teeth simply involves coating the teeth’s surface with a high-level fluoride varnish about every six months to strengthen enamel. It’s important to apply fissure sealants as adult teeth come in (around age six or seven). Painting a plastic coating on the back of teeth, on the chewing surface, keeps germs and food particles out of the tiny grooves in teeth. This coating may not require reapplication for a solid five to ten years.


Again, let’s be clear here, the no.1 cause of tooth decay is SUGAR attacks on our teeth. High sugar content diets quickly rot teeth, but acidity levels also raise issue by causing tooth sensitivity and enamel erosion. Particularly, fruit juices and sodas need regulation in a child’s diet. It’s better to serve water or warm milk, since the sugar and acid in soda attacks teeth for about an hour, and reserve fruit juice for mealtimes only. While fruit does contain some sugar and acid that could damage teeth, it’s only problematic if eaten in abnormally large amounts on many occasions through the day.

Balance a fruit snack with a savoury snack like cheese, bread, vegetables, or nuts (see Tricks and Tips list). Diets high in vitamins, minerals, and fresh fruit and vegetables protect from gum disease and halitosis (bad breath). Avoid processed foods and read ingredient labels closely. If sugar falls within the first three listed ingredients, it’s likely a drastic high-level in the item. Plus other deceptive labels to watch out for are ‘low-fat’ or ‘no sugar added’ – both of these can still have high sugars under different names like sucrose and fructose.


Dr. Kilcoyne’s Dental Tips and Tricks Department of Health good dental health advice
1. Eat a small piece of cheese before sweets/treats A. Brush teeth and gums twice a day
2. Eat sweet treats as a dessert after other food B. Use a small pea-sized amount of toothpaste
3. Drink/rinse with water after juice/fizzy drinks C. Reduce the number of sugar attacks on teeth
4. Rub tooth-sensitive toothpaste into teeth before bed D. Visit the Dentist at least once a year
5. Drink milk between meals or after sugar attacks E. Spit out after brushing and don’t rinse

In summary, take the actions needed to make your children’s teeth a top priority as soon as possible. Every child deserves to smile with confidence, and it’s never too late to start reversing bad habits. With this information in mind, the UK can make sure kids start a healthy relationship with the tooth fairy. All dental problems are preventable and treatable, but the earlier this is done the better – the best gift you can give your child is a healthy smile for life!

Dr Tony Kilcoyne

Dr Tony Kilcoyne

GDC number: 58373

SmileSpecialist® Centre, West Yorkshire

Dr. Kilcoyne is a GDC Registered Dental Specialist, with 30 years of experience in general and cosmetic dentistry. He was uniquely selected as one of the dental surgeons to athletes during the Olympic Games 2012 and was highlighted as ‘Gamesmaker of the Day’ in the Olympic village. He has been involved in research on dental conditions including tooth erosion and decay in several academic institutions. He recently led a noteworthy campaign involving 100 dentists signing a letter to highlight structural problems within NHS dentistry, prompting national press coverage, and is an avid campaigner for improving the state of the nation’s oral health.

  • CelineSand

    Keeping your teeth nice and white is a matter of regularly keeping up with cleaning your teeth night and day. It’s so important that you brush your teeth. I actually never knew how important it was to floss your teeth. Thanks for allowing us to learn even further how to keep our teeth clean!
    Celine |

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  • Moz121

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