Antiseptic treatment (chlorhexidine) to prevent tooth decay in children and young people

Review question

This review examined the effectiveness of varnishes and gels containing chlorhexidine in preventing tooth decay in children and young people.


Tooth decay is a very common disease that over time destroys the tooth surface. It has been estimated to affect up to 80% of people in high-income countries and, despite being preventable through oral hygiene and dietary measures and the use of agents such as fluoride that reduce risk of decay, it is likely to remain a problem, especially in low-income countries. Tooth decay can result in pain and infection, and in young children may require treatment in hospital under a general anaesthetic. As well as causing anxiety and pain, this may mean the child or young person missing time at school and their parents or carers having to take time off work, possibly losing income and incurring extra costs. Prevention of tooth decay is simpler and possibly cheaper than waiting until it occurs and then requires extensive treatment.

Tooth decay is largely preventable, and a range of things may assist this: twice-daily toothbrushing with a fluoride toothpaste, reducing both the amount of and number of times per day sugar is eaten, and drinking water that contains fluoride (bottled or tap, depending on where you live).

Tooth decay occurs when certain types of bacteria (germs) in the mouth, such as Streptococcus mutans, produce acids from the sugar we eat, which dissolve the hard enamel coating on our teeth. The chemical antiseptic treatment chlorhexidine is highly successful at destroying these bacteria and can be used safely at home in the form of a gel, spray, chewing gum, toothpaste or mouthrinse. Alternatively, chlorhexidine can be applied as a varnish to the surface of teeth by a dentist.

Study characteristics

The evidence in this review, carried out through the Cochrane Oral Health Group, is up-to-date at 25 February 2015. We found eight studies that were suitable to include in this review. The studies involved a total of 2876 children from birth to 15 years of age who were at moderate to high risk of tooth decay. Six of the studies looked at the effects of dental professionals applying different strengths of chlorhexidine varnishes to the baby teeth, permanent teeth or both types of teeth in children and adolescents. The other two studies looked at the effects of parents placing chlorhexidine gel on their children's baby teeth. There were no studies that examined other products containing chlorhexidine, such as sprays, toothpastes, chewing gums or mouthrinses.

Key results

The results did not provide evidence that chlorhexidine varnish or gel reduces tooth decay or reduces the bacteria that encourage tooth decay. The studies did not evaluate other outcomes such as pain, quality of life, patient satisfaction or direct and indirect costs of interventions. Four studies measured side effects and found none were observed.

Quality of the evidence

Due to the lack of suitable studies and concerns about possible bias in the included studies, the evidence is very low quality. As a result, we are not able to conclude whether or not chlorhexidine is effective in preventing tooth decay in children or adolescents, when compared to placebo (an inactive substitute for chlorhexidine) or no treatment. Future research on the use of chlorhexidine to prevent tooth decay is needed and should consider both primary and permanent teeth and should assess other chlorhexidine-containing products that can be used at home, such as toothpastes or mouthrinses.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found little evidence from the eight trials on varnishes and gels included in this review to either support or refute the assertion that chlorhexidine is more effective than placebo or no treatment in the prevention of caries or the reduction of mutans streptococci levels in children and adolescents. There were no trials on other products containing chlorhexidine such as sprays, toothpastes, chewing gums or mouthrinses. Further high quality research is required, in particular evaluating the effects on both the primary and permanent dentition and using other chlorhexidine-containing oral products.

Read the full abstract...

Dental caries (tooth decay) is a common disease that is preventable by reducing the dietary intake of free sugars and using topical sodium fluoride products. An antibacterial agent known as chlorhexidine may also help prevent caries. A number of over-the-counter and professionally administered chlorhexidine-based preparations are available in a variety of formulations and in a range of strengths. Although previous reviews have concluded that some formulations of chlorhexidine may be effective in inhibiting the progression of established caries in children, there is currently a lack of evidence to either claim or refute a benefit for its use in preventing dental caries.


To assess the effects of chlorhexidine-containing oral products (toothpastes, mouthrinses, varnishes, gels, gums and sprays) on the prevention of dental caries in children and adolescents.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Oral Health Group Trials Register (25 February 2015), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2014, Issue 12), MEDLINE via OVID (1946 to 25 February 2015), EMBASE via OVID (1980 to 25 February 2015) and CINAHL via EBSCO (1937 to 25 February 2015). We handsearched several journals placed no language restrictions on our search. After duplicate citations were removed, the electronic searches retrieved 1075 references to studies.

Selection criteria: 

We included parallel-group, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that compared the caries preventive effects of chlorhexidine gels, toothpastes, varnishes, mouthrinses, chewing gums or sprays with each other, placebo or no intervention in children and adolescents. We excluded trials with combined interventions of chlorhexidine and fluoride or comparisons between chlorhexidine and fluoride interventions.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted trial data and assessed risk of bias. We resolved disagreements by consensus. We contacted trial authors for clarification or additional study details when necessary. The number of included studies that were suitable for meta-analysis was limited due to the clinical diversity of the included studies with respect to age, composition of intervention, and variation in outcome measures and follow-up. Where we were unable to conduct meta-analysis, we elected to present a narrative synthesis of the results.

Main results: 

We included eight RCTs that evaluated the effects of chlorhexidine varnishes (1%, 10% or 40% concentration) and chlorhexidine gel (0.12%) on the primary or permanent teeth, or both, of children from birth to 15 years of age at the start of the study. The studies randomised a total of 2876 participants, of whom 2276 (79%) were evaluated. We assessed six studies as being at high risk of bias overall and two studies as being at unclear risk of bias overall. Follow-up assessment ranged from 6 to 36 months.

Six trials compared chlorhexidine varnish with placebo or no treatment. It was possible to pool the data from two trials in the permanent dentition (one study using 10% chlorhexidine and the other, 40%). This led to an increase in the DMFS increment in the varnish group of 0.53 (95% confidence interval (CI) -0.47 to 1.53; two trials, 690 participants; very low quality evidence). Only one trial (10% concentration chlorhexidine varnish) provided usable data for elevated mutans streptococci levels > 4 with RR 0.93 (95% CI 0.80 to 1.07, 496 participants; very low quality evidence). One trial measured adverse effects (for example, ulcers or tooth staining) and reported that there were none; another trial reported that no side effects of the treatment were noted. No trials reported on pain, quality of life, patient satisfaction or costs.

Two trials compared chlorhexidine gel (0.12% concentration) with no treatment in the primary dentition. The presence of new caries gave rise to a 95% confidence interval that was compatible with either an increase or a decrease in caries incidence (RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.36 to 2.77; 487 participants; very low quality evidence). Similarly, data for the effects of chlorhexidine gel on the prevalence of mutans streptococci were inconclusive (RR 1.26, 95% CI 0.95 to 1.66; two trials, 490 participants; very low quality evidence). Both trials measured adverse effects and did not observe any. Neither of these trials reported on the other secondary outcomes such as measures of pain, quality of life, patient satisfaction or direct and indirect costs of interventions.