Sealing your child’s teeth may actually be one of the best things you could ever do for them, suggests the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In a report released Wednesday, CDC researchers examined how often children from the ages of 6 to 11 suffered tooth decay since 2011, as well as whether they received dental sealants through a school program. Compared to the years 1999 to 2004, they found that the use of sealants had increased by 16 percent and 9 percent among low-income and higher-income children, respectively. Unfortunately, more than half of all lower-income children in total didn’t receive sealants — about 10 percent less than their higher-income counterparts.

Sealants can prevent 80 percent of cavities in the first two years of being applied, the authors said, so providing them to all low-income children would prevent 3.4 million cavities over 4 years. That in turn would amount to hundreds of millions in savings. Currently, about 20 percent of kids have untreated tooth decay by the age of 19.

"School-age children without sealants have almost three times more cavities than children with sealants,” the CDC said in a summary of its report. “Applying sealants in school-based programs to the nearly 7 million low-income children who don’t have them could save up to $300 million in dental treatment costs.”

Added Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC: “Many children with untreated cavities will have difficulty eating, speaking, and learning. Dental sealants can be an effective and inexpensive way to prevent cavities, yet only 1 in 3 low-income children currently receive them. School-based sealant programs are an effective way to get sealants to children.”

As the CDC explains, sealants are a thin plastic coating typically applied via a special gel to the surface of our backmost teeth, or molars, since 90 percent of cavities occur there. Though they can last upwards of a decade, their best level of protection is seen in the first few years after application. Currently, the CDC provides funding to 21 various state public health departments to set up school sealant programs. When aimed at high-risk children, it’s estimated these programs save $11.70 per tooth over the course of four years. They’re also only one-third the cost of fillings, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent, public service-oriented nonprofit

“Applying sealants in schools is an effective strategy to increase the prevalence of sealant application among children not accessing regular dental care, but few schools offer these programs,” the CDC authors said, pointing out that federal funding is scarce. One way to lighten the load, they suggested, would be for more states to allow dental hygienists as well as dentists to give children sealants.

“For example, in South Carolina, school-based sealant programs managed and staffed by dental hygienists deliver sealants in approximately 40 percent of high-need schools,” they wrote. “These SBSP are primarily financed by Medicaid billing.”

While important, sealants aren’t the only way to ensure kids’ teeth health, they added. Making sure kids brush with fluoride toothpaste, drink fluoridated water, and regularly visit a dentist are also essential steps.

“School-based sealant programs can help caregivers of eligible children enroll in public insurance programs and can increase utilization of dental care by identifying tooth decay in children who are not regularly seen by a dentist and referring them for needed dental treatment,” they concluded.

Source: Griffin S, Wei L, Gooch B, et al. Vital Signs: Dental Sealant Use and Untreated Tooth Decay Among U.S. School-Aged Children. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2016.