As seen in:

By Dr. Rob Gausmann, DDS  – Printed August 17, 2012

Q. What are dental sealants, who should get them, and how long do they last?

A.  A dental sealant is a material placed on teeth to help prevent cavities.  The tooth-colored material is placed onto the chewing surfaces of teeth and then hardened.  An example that may be familiar, would be caulking a joint.  The idea is to fill the joint with material making it smoother and easier to clean.  In a similar idea, dental sealants cover the grooves on teeth to help prevent food collection and make the tooth surface smooth and easier to keep clean with a toothbrush.

Because of their preventative nature, sealants are recommended for children and teenagers who may be more susceptible to tooth decay, especially on the chewing surface.  Sealants are placed on their adult (permanent) teeth after they erupt.  Since the material is placed into the grooves of the teeth, only the back teeth are selected for sealants.  Adult front teeth have minimal grooves and are typically not sealed. When the top surface of the tooth is no longer covered by gum tissue, sealants can be placed.  Permanent back teeth ordinarily start to erupt around the age of six and may continue into early teens. 

Applying dental sealants is a noninvasive and often quick process.  Since the sealant material flows into the already present grooves, rarely is a dental handpiece (drill) used.  (An exception may be cleaning out deep stained grooves.) Fortunately, no dental numbing is needed – which means no dental injection or post-operative biting of numb cheeks and tongues.  Isolation of the tooth’s top surface is key - so cotton rolls, blocks to help stay open, or other instruments may be used to keep the surface dry from water and saliva.  Once isolation is completed, the surface is cleaned with a special solution and the sealant material is allowed to flow into the tooth’s grooves.  After all the grooves and covered, a special light is used to make the fluid sealant become hard.  A quick check to verify the patient’s bite on the newly sealed tooth and it is time to move onto the next area.

Even though the nature of sealants is to prevent tooth decay, brushing is still important.  Food debris can collect on the chewing surface of the tooth and cause cavities - the advantage of sealants is that now the toothbrush can more completely remove the debris since the surface is smooth versus the previously deep grooves.  Unlike regular fillings, which require tooth structure to be removed, sealants are not specifically designed or guaranteed to be permanent.  However, with excellent oral health care, many adult patients still have sealants on their teeth.  Because sealants are placed in young patients who are losing baby (primary) teeth and gaining permanent teeth, the biting positions between the upper and lower teeth is constantly changing.  This can cause a sealant to chip or come off.  This is unlikely to cause discomfort and the sealant can be easily re-applied at the next dental visit.  

Dr. Rob Gausmann, DDS  – Gausmann Family Dental

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