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Shades of Decay: The Meanings of Tooth Discoloration and Deterioration to Mexican Immigrant Caregivers of Young Children


The objective of this article is to investigate parental understanding of tooth discoloration and decay and their related care seeking for young, Mexican-American children. The research design entailed semi-structured, face-to-face interviews conducted in Spanish with a convenience sample of 37 Mexican immigrant mothers of young children in a low-income urban neighborhood. Five major color terms - white, off-white, yellow, brown, and black - were used to describe tooth discoloration, the causes of which were mainly unrecognized or attributed to poor oral hygiene and exposure to sweet substances. Mothers also described three major levels of deterioration of the structural integrity of teeth due to caries, from stains to decayed portions to entirely rotten. A trend was observed between use of darker discoloration terms and extensive carious lesions. Teeth described as both dark in color and structurally damaged resulted in seeking of professional care. The paper concludes with the finding that Spanish terms used to describe tooth discoloration and carious lesions are broad and complex. Mexican immigrant mothers' interpretations of tooth discoloration and decay may differ from dental professionals' and result in late care seeking. Increased understanding between dental practitioners and caregivers is needed to create educational messages about the early signs of tooth decay.

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