Systemic fluoride, or fluoride that is actually consumed either by drinking (naturally or chemically) fluoridated water or by taking a fluoride supplement, helps teeth and bones become and stay healthy and strong. For tooth health, fluoride replaces a softer form of a naturally occurring chemical with a fluoridated version that is much stronger. This added strength helps teeth resist decay from the acid formed by the bacteria in plaque.
Water in many cities and towns is fluoridated. Some rural water systems are also treated with fluoride. Check with the water district to find out if local water is fluoridated or not. Water may also contain fluoride naturally and can be tested to determine if needed levels are present.
Topical fluoride, that is, fluoride that comes in contact with the outside of teeth, helps prevent tooth decay also. This may be in the form of a fluoride swish or in fluoride toothpaste. Either way, this application and absorption of fluoride helps in the remineralization of the cracks, crevices and other tiny holes created by the bacteria that cause tooth decay. So damage due to decay is repaired before it can advance to a serious problem. Fluoride also reduces plaque-causing bacteria’s ability to create acid that causes tooth decay.
A fluoride swish is held in contact with teeth for the count of 60 and spit out. No food or drink should be consumed then for 30 minutes after the swish.
Fluoride is especially important for young children (ages 0-12) while teeth are forming. Fluoride toothpastes are designed for use in brushing teeth twice a day. The toothpaste is not supposed to be swallowed though. For young children, under 6 years old, there are specially formulated toothpastes that contain less fluoride and so are not as dangerous if swallowed.
Children should be taught from an early age, though, to rinse and spit and NOT swallow fluoride toothpaste. Consuming too much fluoride can lead to a condition called fluorosis. Teeth become brown and mottled but are otherwise healthy. Excessive consumption of fluoride can be toxic.
Source: Written by Janet Hackert, Regional Nutrition and Health Education Specialist and adapted by Jessica Kovarik, Extension Associate, University of Missouri Extension