Many people consume carbonated beverages, fruit juice and highly acidic foods every day but probably don't realize that they may be harming their teeth. The acid in the foods we eat and drink can cause tooth enamel to wear away and teeth can become sensitive, cracked and discolored. In many cases, it's not what you eat and drink that is as important as how you consume these foods.
What is tooth erosion?
Tooth erosion, or tooth wear, is the loss of tooth structure caused by the weakening of dental enamel. Dental enamel is the thin, outer layer of hard tissue that helps maintain the tooth's structure and shape. When the enamel weakens, it exposes the underlying dentin (the tissue that makes up the core of each tooth), causing the teeth to appear yellow.
What causes tooth erosion?
Tooth erosion may occur when the enamel on your teeth is weakened by the acid found in many foods and drinks. Usually the calcium contained in saliva will help remineralize (or strengthen) your teeth after you consume small amounts of acid; however, the presence of a lot of acid in your mouth does not allow for remineralization. Acid can come from many sources, including the following:
- Carbonated drinks. All soft drinks (even diet varieties) contain a lot of acid and can dissolve enamel on your teeth very quickly.
- Fruit juice and wine. Juice and wine have similar effects on your teeth because they contain acid.
- Fruit, pickles, yogurt and honey. These foods are acidic; don't let them linger in your mouth. Swallow them as soon as you've chewed them enough.
- Bulimia and acid reflux. Bulimia and acid reflux also can cause tooth damage from stomach acids coming into contact with teeth. Medical and dental help should be sought for anyone who suffers from either of these conditions.
What are some signs of tooth erosion?
Acid wear may lead to serious dental problems. It is important to notice the signs of tooth erosion in its early stages (sensitivity, discoloration and rounded teeth) before more severe damage occurs (cracks, severe sensitivity and other problems).
- Discoloration. Teeth can become slightly yellow because the thinning enamel layer exposes the underlying dentin.
- Rounded teeth. Your teeth may have a rounded or 'sand-blasted' look.
- Transparency. Your front teeth may appear slightly translucent near the biting edges.
- Advanced discoloration. Teeth may become more yellow as more dentin is exposed because of the loss of protective tooth enamel.
- Cracks. Small cracks and roughness may appear at the edges of teeth.
- Cupping. Small dents may appear on the chewing surface of the teeth. Fillings also might appear to be rising up out of the tooth.
What can I do to prevent tooth erosion?
Because there are different reasons why you may experience tooth erosion (swishing carbonated drinks, drinking a lot of juice or wine, eating disorders), talk to your dentist about your habits so that a plan for preventive action can be determined. Be smart about how you consume acidic foods and you can continue enjoying the things you like. Here are some general ways to protect your teeth:
- Reduce or eliminate drinking carbonated drinks. Instead, drink water, milk or tea - but skip the sugar and honey!
- If you must consume acidic drinks, drink them quickly and use a straw so that the liquid is pushed to the back of the mouth. Don't swish them around or hold them in your mouth for long periods.
- Don't let acidic foods linger in your mouth; swallow them as soon as you've chewed them enough so that they are ready to digest.
- Instead of snacking on acidic foods throughout the day, eat these foods just during meal times in order to minimize the amount of time the acid is on the teeth.
- After consuming high-acid food or drinks, rinse with water to neutralize the acids.
- Chew sugar-free gum to produce more saliva, as this helps your teeth remineralize.
- Brush with a soft toothbrush and be sure your toothpaste contains fluoride.
- Your dentist may also recommend daily use of a toothpaste to reduce sensitivity (over-the-counter or prescription strength) or other products to counter the effects of erosion.
The oral health information on this web site is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.
To get a balanced diet, eat a variety of foods. Choose foods from each of the five major food groups:
- breads, cereals and other grain products
- meat, poultry and fish
- milk, cheese and yogurt
- Limit the number of snacks you eat. Each time you eat food that contains sugars or starches, the teeth are attacked by acids for 20 minutes or more.
- If you do snack, choose nutritious foods, such as cheese, raw vegetables, plain yogurt, or a piece of fruit.
- Foods that are eaten as part of a meal cause less harm. More saliva is released during a meal, which helps wash foods from the mouth and helps lessen the effects of acids.
- Brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste that has the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance.
- Clean between your teeth daily with floss or interdental cleaners.
- Visit your dentist regularly. Your dentist can help prevent problems from occurring and catch those that do occur while they are easy to treat.
As you eat and food passes through your mouth, it meets the germs, or bacteria, that live in your mouth. You may have heard your dentist talk about plaque. Plaque is a sticky film of bacteria.
These bacteria love sugars and starches found in many foods. When you don't clean your teeth after eating, plaque bacteria use the sugar and starch to produce acids that can destroy the hard surface of the tooth called enamel. After a while, tooth decay occurs. The more often you eat and the longer foods are in your mouth, the more damage occurs.
Many of the foods you eat cause bacteria in your mouth to produce acids. Sugared foods, such as candy and cookies, are not the only culprits. Starches, such as bread, crackers, and cereal, also cause acids to form. If you snack often, you could be having acid attacks all day long. After many acid attacks, your teeth may decay.
Plaque also produces substances that irritate the gums, making them red, tender or prone to bleed easily. After awhile, gums may pull away from the teeth. Pockets form and fill with more bacteria and pus. If the gums are not treated, the bone around the teeth can be destroyed. The teeth may become loose or have to be removed. In fact, gum disease is a main cause of tooth loss in adults.
One way to prevent tooth decay and gum disease is to eat a balanced diet and limit the number of between-meal snacks. If you need a snack, choose nutritious foods such as raw vegetables, plain yogurt, cheese or a piece of fruit.