Decades Later, Fluoride Rinse Programs Continue to be Effective in Protecting Against Tooth Decay

Feb 11, 2016

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School-based fluoride rinse programs have been available to West Virginia schools for decades. Advocates argue they are still one of the cheapest and most effective tools schools have for preventing tooth decay. However, they are not well utilized. Recently, the Bureau for Public Health, which funds these programs, has begun a push to get more schools to take advantage of them.

At Mount Hope Elementary School in Fayette County, health educator Rosalie McCauley passes out toothbrushes and plastic cups of bubblegum-flavored fluoride mouth rinse to students.

“Remember, do not swallow, swish around, and when I say ‘go’ we will begin. Are you ready? Go!” she says to a class of enthusiastic third graders.

The fluoride mouth rinse program is brand new here, and kids and administrators are excited about it. The kids I talked to enjoy “swishing around the mouthwash,” and administrators hope the program will help reduce dental decay (also known as dental caries) in students.

“What the fluoride does is it protects the outer layer, you know the enamel,” says school nurse Jeanne Black. She says the hope is by providing fluoride mouth rinse and oral health education to students, schools can prevent dental decay in the young and teach lifelong oral health habits.

McCauley says she also thinks the program is empowering the students to take charge of their own oral health.

Third grader Hanna Parsons says she has learned “if you want to keep your teeth clean, to take care of them, to brush them and to use mouth wash.”

The most interesting thing she has learned from the program?

“Keeping my teeth clean,” she says, “so [my teeth] don’t fall out.”

Black says that last year she saw a lot of dental caries: ”I mean really bad decayed teeth. The children, they can’t concentrate in school, they just can’t learn, because they are in so much pain.”

McCauley says one of the biggest challenges at Mount Hope is that the community is mostly rural and poor. Most residents use well water that isn’t fluoridated. Administrators also say they suspect that poor nutrition, especially lots of sugary drinks, contributes to the children's tooth decay.

“Dental health for any population – it contributes to your overall health,” says McCauley. “There is a relationship between poverty and risk for dental caries, and that could be access to dental care, the ability to provide the hygiene you need with the toothbrushes and toothpaste and stuff like that.”

Fluoride rinse programs are voluntary for schools and families. Supplies are free to all elementary schools – but the schools have find someone like McCauley or Black who is willing to do a training and oversee the program – and parents have to sign a permission form for their students to participate.

These programs now reach more than 200 West Virginian elementary schools and 9,600 students. 

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.