Professional Fluoride Treatment

girl getting fluoride treatment
Professional fluoride treatments are standard for most children -- and recommended for adults -- and they're given every three, six or 12 months, depending on oral health.

A bubble-gum flavored polish with a fluoride treatment after has been pretty standard procedure for kids who visit the dentist, but how does this professional treatment work and what keeps it from just washing off the teeth? Can adults benefit from it, too? Whether it's painted on, swished around or even swallowed, fluoride is known to benefit the teeth, but before talking about what it does, what exactly is it?

Fluoride is a natural mineral that gets along really well with the mineral bonds in human teeth, or more specifically, with tooth enamel. Before fluoride is added to tooth products, it can be found in water, soil, air and rocks, among other places in nature. As part of an oral hygiene routine, it is very effective in fighting tooth decay and pain in decaying areas. It can stop and even reverse cavities, and it even helps remineralize tooth enamel, rebuilding bonds as they begin to wear away [sources: CDC; AAPD].


Drinking water and tooth products such as toothpastes and rinses are the most common sources of fluoride, but the most potent source is found only in the office of a dental professional. An in-office fluoride treatment involves applying a concentration not available over-the-counter (OTC), and it requires leaving the fluoride on the teeth to set into the enamel [source: JADA]. Most OTC tooth products contain fluoride, and the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that we brush with fluoride toothpastes, but these pastes and gels stay on the teeth and in the mouth just a short time compared to those applied in a dental office.

If we're getting a daily dose of fluoride at home, either topically through brushing the outsides of our teeth or systemically by ingesting it in our water, is it necessary to get professional fluoride treatments? Or is that just kid stuff? We'll look at what the treatments are supposed to do next.


What does fluoride do?

Fluoride works before, during and after it hits your teeth, and it has different roles depending on your age. Used before eating and drinking, it actually inhibits some acid from attacking tooth enamel. It has an effect on the bacteria as it forms to become corrosive to teeth. When fluoride from toothpaste or dental rinses is distributed around the teeth, it sets in and can help with the mouth's ongoing remineralization, as well. And long after fluoridated, or fluoride-containing drinking water goes through the mouth and down the hatch, it works in a systemic way to provide fluoride stores from the inside out [source: AAPD].

Most regions in the United States add fluoride to drinking water sources, and this has been standard practice since about 1945. Studies have shown that fluoridated water has lowered rates of tooth decay by 20 to 50 percent, allowing some children to grow up without getting cavities or with fewer of them [sources: ADA; AAPD]. As permanent teeth are growing, it's considered especially beneficial to use fluoride. Tooth enamel forms tighter bonds as teeth mature and fluoride can actually combine with enamel as this bonding is taking place, adding extra protection from decay [source: Dowshen]. After enamel has finished growing, fluoride stops penetrating at the deeper level of the mineral bonds but it still works well at protecting tooth surfaces from plaque and cavities.


Although fluoridated water at its most effective levels is available through about 72.4 percent of the drinking water sources in the U.S. and fluoride dental products are even more readily available, not everyone chooses to ingest or treat teeth with fluoride [source: ADA]. Some debate both the safety and effectiveness of fluoride, whether it's applied to teeth or taken into the body, and we'll look at some of the controversies later. Others, however, are more aggressive in their use of fluoride because it can be a very effective tool in fighting tooth decay in those who are at high risk for it.

We'll look at who should be getting fluoride treatments and how they're administered, next.


Getting a Fluoride Treatment

man brushing teeth
The majority of toothpastes today contain fluoride as the active ingredient.

Vitamins and minerals are vitally important for our bodies and are especially important for growing children. Just as calcium works to build strong bones and teeth, fluoride can work to form a solid base of tooth enamel. Our bodies have some natural stores of the compounds that make up fluoride, such as fluorine, but when supplemented with additional doses, we have a much better chance of holding strong against plaque-causing bacteria and acids. Professional fluoride treatments are standard for most children and recommended for adults, and they're given every three, six or 12 months, depending on oral health.

People at higher risk for developing cavities or decay may be given concentrated fluoride treatments more often, and any of the following can be cause for a more aggressive dental plan:


  • poor oral hygiene and diet
  • untreated cavities or an active bacterial infection
  • health problems or diseases affecting teeth, such as eating disorders, cancer, diabetes, drug and alcohol abuse
  • long periods between professional teeth cleanings and exams
  • exposed roots
  • dry mouth
  • cracks in tooth enamel
  • a lot of dental work or fillings or types of orthodontia with hard to clean areas [source: JADA].

When it's time for a professional fluoride treatment, typically, it will follow a cleaning and exam. Teeth will be painted with a foam, gel, paste or liquid, or they may be covered with trays filled with a fluoride compound. Many offices even offer a choice of flavors, from grape to mint to bubble gum. Once the teeth are coated, the dentist or hygienist will leave the solution on for just a minute to several minutes before rinsing it gently or asking you to spit out any excess without using water. After the treatment, you may have to wait 30 minutes or more before eating and drinking anything, including water, and some treatments will be felt on the teeth for hours after applied. Your teeth might feel slimy, sticky or even gunky and fuzzy depending on the application, but that residue is a good sign that the fluoride is adhering to the teeth long enough to do its job and form a barrier of protection [source: JADA].

Often, fluoride treatments are rolled into the cost of a cleaning, and even if there is an extra charge, they're worth it, not just for protecting teeth but also for gum health. Less bacteria and plaque means less tartar or calculus build-up so gums can stay tightly adhered to teeth rather than receding.

What are some other effects of fluoride treatments, and how about the controversies or potential risks we mentioned earlier? Next, we'll brush up on both.


Effects of a Fluoride Treatment

Fluoride treatments are most effective when combined with good oral hygiene. Brushing at least twice a day, flossing daily and maintaining a diet high in vitamins and minerals can keep most people out of the high-risk dental category and will make routine treatments an added layer of protection and prevention. Some individuals may experience mild discomfort or gum irritation during or after fluoride application, especially if sensitive teeth are an issue, but in most cases, the treatment is painless and completely comfortable. Because the concentration of fluoride used in office treatments is so high, stomach upset or nausea may result if the solution is swallowed, but most often upright positioning helps prevent this.

Controversies over how safe fluoride is -- even in the parts per million concentrations in drinking water sources -- center on whether or not fluoride can cause cancers, increase tooth sensitivity and even damage teeth. In cases where too much fluoride has been present in drinking water or when it's administered too much in young children, a condition called fluorosis can develop as well. Fluorosis can cause small white streaks of dots on teeth or may even lead to browning of enamel, but it is not very prevalent or reported as a major concern for those receiving professional fluoride treatments. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Dental Association support the use of fluoride for oral health and provide data to back up their endorsements, but if unsure, speak with your dentist about the specific risks and the possible consequences of going without it. Non-fluoride tooth products are available in most drug and health food stores, and a dentist can suggest one best suited for your needs [source: ADA].


If you're at moderate to high risk for dental problems, a professional fluoride treatment is probably a worthwhile part of each routine cleaning and exam, and even if no problems are present, your dentist may recommend painting on the mineral just to give you a tooth up against cavities and for the health of your enamel.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD). "Fluoride." 2011. (Jan. 12, 2012)
  • American Dental Association (ADA). "Fluoride and Fluoridation." 2012. (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Community Water Fluoridation: Questions and Answers. 2012. Jan. 13, 2012.
  • Dowshen, Steven, ed. "How Does Fluoride Work?" April 2011. (Jan. 13, 2012)
  • Goss, Lisa, ed. "Going to the Dentist." Dec. 2010. (Jan. 15, 2012)
  • Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA). "Fluoride Treatments in the Dental Office." March 1, 2007. (2012)