When a tooth is exposed to a sudden temperature change, this can stress the enamel
Sugary snacks and too much fruit juice are well-known risk factors for tooth decay.
But there are other apparently innocent activities that could be damaging our teeth.
Earlier this month, it was suggested that exercise could be bad for teeth — dentists at University Hospital Heidelberg, Germany, found the longer athletes exercised, the less saliva they produced and the more alkaline it became.
Alkaline saliva encourages the growth of plaque bacteria, and for every extra hour of training each week, the researchers found there was an increased risk of having decayed or missing teeth.
‘Every day we do things or are exposed to situations that can have an impact on our teeth,’ says Dr Stephen Pitt of the Dental Studio, Colchester, Essex.
So what could be putting your teeth or jaw at risk?
Drinking tea to warm you up
Drinking something hot after coming in from the cold may cause cracks in the surface of the teeth.
These superficial cracks, barely visible to the naked eye, are caused by rapid changes in temperature.
Teeth are made of a yellowish bulky material called dentine, which is covered with enamel.
When a tooth is exposed to a sudden temperature change, this can stress the enamel and result in a crack.
Usually cracks are only a cosmetic problem, as they can become stained by coffee or red wine.
However, if they become deeper and enter the dentine, this can cause sensitivity.
A severe crack may also damage the pulp or nerve within the tooth, causing infection or an abscess.
‘This happens only if you are frequently exposed to extremes of temperature, so the effects are cumulative, like constantly stepping on ice until it gives way,’ says Dr Pitt.
You can limit the change in temperature for your teeth during cold weather by wearing a scarf over your mouth, as this will warm the air you breathe.
The same kind of problem can be caused by crunching the ice in your drink, says Professor Damien Walmsley, scientific adviser to the British Dental Association.
When you chew ice, you’re creating a sudden change in temperature, stressing the enamel, which in turn can cause small cracks.
Swimming with your mouth open
Swimming in pools in which chlorine content hasn’t been carefully regulated may lead to dental erosion — loss of hard tissue from the surface of the tooth. It may also leave teeth discoloured and more sensitive
Swimming in pools in which chlorine content hasn’t been carefully regulated may lead to dental erosion — loss of hard tissue from the surface of the tooth. It may also leave teeth discoloured and more sensitive.
Chlorine reacts with water to produce a weak form of hydrochloric acid, which can wear down teeth, says Professor Walmsley.
Researchers from the New York University College of Dentistry found pools that are not properly maintained can cause severe and rapid erosion of dental enamel.
Pools should have their chlorine levels checked regularly. While swimming, keep your mouth closed to avoid exposing teeth to chlorinated water.
Using hay fever remedies
Antihistamines used for allergies such as hay fever can cause a dry mouth, which can lead to tooth decay in the long term.
They work by blocking histamine — a chemical released by the immune system when the body is under attack.
‘However, in blocking receptors for histamine, the drug can have an effect on receptors elsewhere in the body, such as those on the tongue and in the mouth,’ says Stephen Foster, a community pharmacist from Kent, who specialises in allergies and respiratory conditions.This may affect the release of saliva, causing a dry mouth.
As well as being uncomfortable, dry mouth can lead to gum disease as the gums pull away from the teeth, and form ‘pockets’ that become infected. Teeth eventually loosen and can even fall out.
Chewing sugarless gum and sipping water may help boost saliva production.
Opening packets with your teeth
Using your teeth to hold knitting needles or biting off threads can make dents in the front teeth known as a tailor’s notch, says Tara Renton, professor of oral surgery at King’s College, London.
Biting nails or tearing packets open with your teeth rather than finding the scissors can also put huge stress on the front teeth and can lead to cracks, says Nicola Owen, of the Dental Health Centre in Manchester.
The tooth can be restored using small fillings.
Brushing straight after eating
Acids and sugars produced when we eat weaken the protective enamel temporarily, so if you clean your teeth straight after eating, you are brushing away at the enamel before it hardens again
Acids and sugars produced when we eat weaken the protective enamel temporarily, so if you clean your teeth straight after eating, you are brushing away at the enamel before it hardens again, says dentist Dr Phil Stemmer, of the Fresh Breath Centre in London.
‘Wait at least half an hour — or even better, brush your teeth before meals to remove bacteria that feed off the food, and then freshen up after eating using an alcohol-free mouthwash.’
And fight the urge to rinse after cleaning your teeth, as it washes away the protective fluoride coating left by the toothpaste.
Taking the contraceptive pill
Some progesterone-only birth control pills could make gums inflamed and more likely to bleed.
‘They increase levels of hormones such as progesterone, much in the same way as pregnancy does,’ says dentist Dr Jeremy Hill, of the Ware Centre of Dental Excellence in Hertfordshire.
‘It is thought these hormones cause an exaggerated reaction to dental plaque, triggering inflammation,’ he says.
‘This is also why pregnant women may have inflamed gums that bleed when brushed.’ Changing to a lower progesterone Pill may help.
While there is no treatment for the inflammation, good dental care will minimise it.
‘It may also be useful to use antiseptic mouthwash that will help to prevent plaque forming,’ says Dr Hill.
Flying when you’ve got fillings
Air travel can trigger pain in a tooth that hasn’t previously bothered you, says Luke Cascarini, consultant oral surgeon at the Sloane BMI Hospital in Kent.
‘Changes in altitude can cause tiny pockets of air to become trapped in deep fillings or collect in areas of decay. This air is trapped at a different pressure to cabin pressure, which is why it causes pain,’ he says.
‘The same could happen when mountain climbing or skiing.’
Have a check-up before you go away to check you don’t need any fillings. The pain should dissipate within a few hours of landing — but see a dentist if it persists.
Being a chatterbox
Talking non-stop can cause wear and tear on the jaw and even lead to arthritis in the joint. Treatment for arthritis in the jaw can involve a replacement of both joints
Talking non-stop can cause wear and tear on the jaw and even lead to arthritis in the joint, says Mr Cascarini, who also works at Guy’s Hospital in London.
‘Constant movement of the jaw can wear out the joint. I recently treated a lady who had no obvious reasons for arthritis other than she was extremely talkative — by her own admission.
‘The jaw joint is a complex joint and probably the most used in the human body. Around one in four people will have a problem in the jaw joints.’
Treatment for arthritis in the jaw can involve a replacement of both joints.
Putting aspirin on a sore tooth
Applying a crushed-up aspirin tablet straight to the mouth is a common DIY remedy — the idea is that it directly attacks the source of the pain.
But applying it directly to the surface of an aching tooth may burn the soft, sensitive tissues in your mouth, says Mr Cascarini.
If you have toothache, aspirin may indeed help — but only if swallowed.
Using an asthma inhaler
Asthma inhalers usually contain an aerosol form of medication known as beta agonists, which work by relaxing the muscles surrounding the airways, making it easier to breathe.
However, studies in Australia and Scandinavia have linked the drug to an increased risk of tooth decay, because it is slightly acidic. The key is to make sure that the medication doesn’t touch the teeth.
‘If used properly in an inhaler, there is no reason why the drug should do so,’ says Stephen Spiro, professor of respiratory medicine at University College London.
Some inhalers that contain the drug as a powder also contain lactose, a milk sugar, to improve its taste. But if residue from the powder is left on the teeth, it could contribute to decay.
‘Changes begin with brown areas, no bigger than a pinprick, on the inside of the teeth,’ says Dr Mervyn Druian, of the London Centre for Cosmetic Dentistry.
After using your inhaler, rinse your mouth with water.
Taking up scuba diving
Scuba diving can lead to jaw joint pain, gum tissue problems or tooth pain symptoms known as ‘diver’s mouth syndrome’ says Professor Walmsley.
This is caused by clamping on the mouthpiece and by the air pressure change involved in diving.
When trying to make a healthier choice for your mouth, you might think juice would be better than soda. However, research is showing that “healthier” choices like juice, diet soda, and even tea are not much better than sugary soft drinks. These types of drinks are exposing the teeth to tooth decaying acids, causing dental erosion that leads to cavities and other health problems.
According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, a substantial proportion of adults have dental erosion. Researchers say that anything with a pH value (the measure of acidity) lower than 5.5 can damage the teeth. If consumed too much, diet and regular sodas, carbonated drinks, flavored fizzy waters, sports drinks, fruit and fruit juices can be be harmful to teeth.
So how can you protect your teeth from dental erosion? Why do sugar and acid cause tooth decay? What drinks should you be avoiding?
We’ve laid out everything you need to know to answer those important questions and help you protect your oral health:
What causes dental erosion?
Dental erosion occurs when the enamel (the hard, protective coating on your teeth) is eaten away by an acid attack. Our mouths are full of hundreds of different types of bacteria. Both helpful and harmful bacteria live on the teeth, gums, and tongue. Tooth decay has 2 main culprits: Sugar and acid.
Tooth decay is caused by a certain kind of bacteria that causes an infection as it uses sugar to make acids. Thus, the more sugar you consume, the more acids are produced, which over time creates a cavity in the tooth.
When you eat or drink something acidic, the enamel in your teeth is temporarily softened. Frequent exposure to acid eats away at the protective layer on your teeth.
Every time your teeth are exposed to anything acidic or sugary, the enamel loses some of its mineral content. To get it back to it’s natural balance, your saliva will slowly cancel out the acidity by re-mineralizing the enamel. But when acid attacks occur frequently, bits of enamel are brushed away and lost before your mouth has a chance to repair itself.
“Cavities form when bacteria in the mouth mix with sugar, leading to decay. Erosion occurs when chemicals strip the mineral off the teeth. The seriousness of the erosion is far more than decay,” said Dr. Mohamed Bassiouny, a restorative dentistry professor at Temple University. “Erosion affects all teeth at once, as you can imagine acidic fluid is running through the entire mouth.”
Drinks that Promote Tooth Decay
1. Diet Soda
Dentists often warn their patients about the consequences of drinking sugary sodas. But did you know that your teeth aren’t faring any better with diet soda? Research is showing that the lack of sugar is not making these drinks any less corrosive, as most soft drinks still have a significant amount of acidity. In fact, Bassiouny says that the carbonation could make the drink more acidic.
For example, one of Bassiouny patients came to him after drinking a liter of diet soda every day for the past three years. He said that her teeth were comparable to that of a methamphetamine user, commonly called “meth mouth.” The corrosive chemicals from that drug cause severe tooth decay, making teeth crumble, discolor, and crack. Unfortunately, consuming diet soda on the regular can cause similar oral damage over time.
2. Energy drinks
A 2008 study published in the journal Nutrition Research showed that energy drinks and sports drinks, like Red Bull and Gatorade, eroded enamel more than soda or fruit drinks. Researchers at the University of Iowa’s College of Dentistry soaked extracted human teeth in various liquids for 25 hours and then measured the structural changes.
“Power drinks can be quite acidic, usually because there is an addition of citric acid to those to give it tartness that is desired by some consumers,” said Dr. Clark Stanford, the associate dean for research at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry. “It’s important to look at the label and see if citric acid has been added.”
Tea is often seen as a healthier alternative to sodas and sugary drinks because of its antioxidants. However, in the same study at the University of Iowa, Stanford and his team also found that black tea is corrosive to teeth as well. “Tea is controversial,” Stanford said. “Certain types of tea can actually stabilize the amount of tooth loss or demineralization of the surface. Others, if they have a low pH, can cause natural erosion of the tooth surface.”
In a similar study conducted by Bassiouny, human teeth were soaked in unsweetened green and black tea. He found that black tea eroded teeth more rapidly than green tea. Still, tea is not nearly as bad as other acidic or sugary substances. Teeth soaked in substances like lemon juice, vinegar, and soda showed changes and lesions by the second week, whereas black tea did not erode the teeth until the 16th week.
4. Citric Juices
Fruits like grapefruits, oranges, and lemons are loaded with acids that wear down tooth enamel. When they are concentrated down into juice, drinking it exposes your teeth to more damaging amounts of acidity. In fact, research has found that orange juice has the capacity to decrease enamel hardness by 84%. “We encourage adults if they’re going to have kids drink fruit juices, which is good in a way, that they consume it all at once instead of sipping on it all day long,” Stanford said.
However, this doesn’t mean you should stop consuming juice altogether. After all, natural juices are packed with vitamins and antioxidants that your body needs. Instead of sipping juice throughout the day, reduce its exposure to your mouth by drinking it in one sitting. You can also look for juices fortified with calcium to help strengthen the enamel on your teeth.
Foods and Drinks that Protect Against Tooth Decay:
Milk contains phosphorus, calcium, and casein which all help strengthen teeth and stop decay. Plus, the sugar found in milk is lactose, which does not promote decay as much as other sugars because it produces less acids.
Cheese helps defend your teeth against decay because it stimulates saliva production. It’s best consumed after a sugary snack to prevent an increase in acidity. Plus, its high calcium content influences the recalcifying of teeth.
Natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables are not nearly as harmful as the processed sugars found in soda and energy drinks. Fibrous plant foods protect teeth by stimulating saliva production.
“Water and milk are the best choices by far, not only for the good of our oral health but our overall health too,” says Dr. Nigel Carter, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation. “Remember, it is how often we have sugary foods and drinks that causes the problem so it is important that we try and reduce the frequency of consumption.”
How to protect teeth against erosion:
1. Stick to natural Sugars
Instead of satisfying your sweet tooth with processed sugary beverages and treats, stick to natural and healthy beverages and foods. You can easily juice your own fruit and veggies to create a sweet and satisfying drink. Just remember that’s it’s best when consumed all at once instead of frequent sips throughout the day. That way, you can limit the exposure of sugar and acid to your teeth.
2. Sip smart with Soda
If you’re going to consume soda and other sugary beverages, be smart about it to keep your teeth protected. Limit the amount you drink (maybe stick to one small soda a day instead of one per meal). Use a straw so that your teeth aren’t immersed in the liquid, and take sips of water between drinks to reduce the acidity in your mouth.
3. Keep your sugary snacks to a minimum.
It’s understandable that you might need a pick-me-up snack in the afternoon as you wrap up a workday. But it’s best for your oral health that you limit the amount of sugary snacks to reduce acid attacks. Also, don’t eat for at least for an hour before bedtime. During the night, low salivary rates during sleep reduce the ability to neutralize acid.
4. Keep up with regular dental visits.
Getting your teeth cleaned and checked regularly will help protect your them against decay. Not only will dental treatments keep your enamel healthy to withstand acid attacks, it also helps to catch cavities early on. That way you can have treatment before any serious damage to your teeth occurs. To get keep your teeth in optimal condition, it’s important that you have access to affordable dental care.