Can putting sealants over the biting surfaces of baby teeth in the back of the mouth prevent tooth decay forming in them?
Tooth decay is one of the most common diseases of childhood that can affect the overall well-being of the child. The most commonly affected teeth are the back teeth whose biting surfaces are not flat and have grooves (pits and fissures) that can retain food debris and bacteria, leading to formation of cavities (decay). In addition, the opening of these grooves is so small that a toothbrush bristle cannot enter them completely, making them difficult to clean. Sealing the grooves is one of the ways to prevent decay in back teeth. Sealant acts as a protective barrier to food and bacteria, thus preventing their harmful action on tooth surfaces.
We included nine studies that involved 1120 children (aged 18 months to eight years). The studies used a variety of dental sealants to prevent tooth decay in baby teeth. We assessed most studies as being at high risk of bias overall, because the dental professionals who were measuring the outcomes could see whether a sealant had been placed, and also differentiated between sealant materials.
Three studies compared sealants with no sealants, and six studies compared different materials or processes to seal the tooth surface. As there were important differences in the design of the studies in terms of the sealant types, the age of the children at the start of the trial and the length of follow-up, we were unable to pool the data. Only one trial assessed and reported side effects, the nature of which was gag reflex while placing the sealant material.
Quality of evidence
We found low-quality evidence regarding the effectiveness of sealants in preventing tooth decay on biting surfaces of back baby teeth in children. Hence, we are unable to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of sealants compared to no sealant or a different sealant in preventing development of decay on baby teeth in children. More well-conducted studies with long follow-up times are needed.
How up-to-date is the evidence?
The review includes studies available from a search of the literature up to 11 February 2021.
The certainty of the evidence for the comparisons and outcomes in this review was low or very low, reflecting the fragility and uncertainty of the evidence base. The volume of evidence for this review was limited, which typically included small studies where the number of events was low. The majority of studies in this review were of split-mouth design, an efficient study design for this research question; however, there were often shortcomings in the analysis and reporting of results that made synthesising the evidence difficult. An important omission from the included studies was the reporting of adverse events. Given the importance of prevention for maintaining good oral health, there exists an important evidence gap pertaining to the caries-preventive effect and retention of sealants in the primary dentition, which should be addressed through robust RCTs.
Pit and fissure sealants are plastic materials that are used to seal deep pits and fissures on the occlusal surfaces of teeth, where decay occurs most often in children and adolescents. Deep pits and fissures can retain food debris and bacteria, making them difficult to clean, thereby causing them to be more susceptible to dental caries. The application of a pit and fissure sealant, a non-invasive preventive approach, can prevent dental caries by forming a protective barrier that reduces food entrapment and bacterial growth. Though moderate-certainty evidence shows that sealants are effective in preventing caries in permanent teeth, the effectiveness of applying pit and fissure sealants to primary teeth has yet to be established.
To evaluate the effects of sealants compared to no sealant or a different sealant in preventing pit and fissure caries on the occlusal surfaces of primary molars in children and to report the adverse effects and the retention of different types of sealants.
An information specialist searched four bibliographic databases up to 11 February 2021 and used additional search methods to identify published, unpublished and ongoing studies. Review authors scanned the reference lists of included studies and relevant systematic reviews for further studies.
We included parallel-group and split-mouth randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that compared a sealant with no sealant, or different types of sealants, for the prevention of caries in primary molars, with no restriction on follow-up duration. We included studies in which co-interventions such as oral health preventive measures, oral health education or tooth brushing demonstrations were used, provided that the same adjunct was used with the intervention and comparator. We excluded studies with complex interventions for the prevention of dental caries in primary teeth such as preventive resin restorations, or studies that used sealants in cavitated carious lesions.
Two review authors independently screened search results, extracted data and assessed risk of bias of included studies. We presented outcomes for the development of new carious lesions on occlusal surfaces of primary molars as odds ratios (OR) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Where studies were similar in clinical and methodological characteristics, we planned to pool effect estimates using a random-effects model where appropriate. We used GRADE methodology to assess the certainty of the evidence.
We included nine studies that randomised 1120 children who ranged in age from 18 months to eight years at the start of the study. One study compared fluoride-releasing resin-based sealant with no sealant (139 tooth pairs in 90 children); two studies compared glass ionomer-based sealant with no sealant (619 children); two studies compared glass ionomer-based sealant with resin-based sealant (278 tooth pairs in 200 children); two studies compared fluoride-releasing resin-based sealant with resin-based sealant (113 tooth pairs in 69 children); one study compared composite with fluoride-releasing resin-based sealant (40 tooth pairs in 40 children); and one study compared autopolymerised sealant with light polymerised sealant (52 tooth pairs in 52 children).
Three studies evaluated the effects of sealants versus no sealant and provided data for our primary outcome. Due to differences in study design such as age of participants and duration of follow-up, we elected not to pool the data. At 24 months, there was insufficient evidence of a difference in the development of new caries lesions for the fluoride-releasing sealants or no treatment groups (Becker Balagtas odds ratio (BB OR) 0.76, 95% CI 0.41 to 1.42; 1 study, 85 children, 255 tooth surfaces). For glass ionomer-based sealants, the evidence was equivocal; one study found insufficient evidence of a difference at follow-up between 12 and 30 months (OR 0.97, 95% CI 0.63 to 1.49; 449 children), while another with 12-month follow-up found a large, beneficial effect of sealants (OR 0.03, 95% CI 0.01 to 0.15; 107 children). We judged the certainty of the evidence to be low, downgrading two levels in total for study limitations, imprecision and inconsistency.
We included six trials randomising 411 children that directly compared different sealant materials, four of which (221 children) provided data for our primary outcome. Differences in age of the participants and duration of follow-up precluded pooling of the data. The incidence of development of new caries lesions was typically low across the different sealant types evaluated. We judged the certainty of the evidence to be low or very low for the outcome of caries incidence.
Only one study assessed and reported adverse events, the nature of which was gag reflex while placing the sealant material.