What Is Fluoride Therapy?

C. Mitchell

The term “fluoride therapy” is most commonly used to describe any of a range of dental procedures designed to deliver high concentrations of chemical fluoride directly to the surface of people's teeth. Fluoride, an ion of the naturally-occurring fluorine compound, is well regarded as an enamel strengthening agent, and is commonly used in dentistry to prevent tooth decay. Community-wide initiatives to systemically deliver fluoride to residents, usually through the water system, can also be referred to under the “therapy” name. These programs are generally undertaken as public health measures.

Trays may be used as part of fluoride therapy to apply gel to teeth.
Trays may be used as part of fluoride therapy to apply gel to teeth.

Most fluoride therapy involves topical application of fluoride gels to the teeth. So-called fluoride “trays” are usually filled with the gel, then pressed onto the teeth for anywhere from several minutes to half an hour. The porous outer enamel of the teeth absorbs the fluoride ions. This promotes enamel growth, tooth strengthening, and overall protection from sugars and acids introduced through diet.

Fluoride does not occur naturally in the body, but has been widely shown to protect and strengthen teeth when applied at regular intervals. One of the main fluoride therapy benefits is a decrease in tooth decay. Stronger teeth can better resist the corrosive effects of bacteria, and in so doing reduce the likelihood of cavities and a whole host of other periodontal problems.

Dentists in most parts of the world recommend regular fluoride therapy for children, as well as for adults with certain tooth decay issues or gum diseases. In addition to gel trays, fluoride therapy can also happen through tooth varnishes, pastes, and mouthwashes. Most of the time, intensive fluoride therapies are dental procedures that must be dosed by a dentist. Some routine preventative therapies can be self-administered, though.

In most places, standard toothpastes and mouthwashes have high fluoride concentrations. When used regularly, these products can be part of an at-home fluoride therapy program. Most people are advised by their dentists to regularly brush their teeth with fluoride-containing toothpaste as a regular part of good oral hygiene. This is usually enough to keep healthy teeth strong, at least between dentists' visits. Only patients with specific fluoride needs usually require professional-strength products.

There are relatively few side effects of direct fluoride treatment on teeth, and documented fluoride therapy benefits usually far outweigh the potential pitfalls. Just the same, dentists usually recommend that extreme dosages of the ion be used only in moderation. Twice a year is as frequent as most healthy people should receive direct fluoride applications, and adults tend to need far fewer treatments than growing children.

In some parts of the world, water fluoridation is a government-mandated form of fluoride therapy designed to increase health and minimize the occurrence of cavities and corrosive tooth decay. This typically involves local officials adding fluoridation tablets to community water supplies, providing fluoride to all residents who drink or use that water. Fluoridation is standard practice in both the United States and Canada, but is rare in most other places.

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