Your teeth are protected by enamel, a very hard, thin coating. To maintain a healthy smile, you need to protect your enamel from decay, excess wear and acid erosion. Learn more about what causes damage to enamel and how you can keep your enamel strong with good dietary choices and proper dental hygiene.
Enamel is the most visible layer of a tooth. It is also the hardest and most mineralized substance in the human body, composed of about 95 to 98 percent calcium and phosphate ions that form strong hydroxyapatite crystals. It protects the much softer inner layer of teeth, called the dentin, from the forces of wear, bacteria and acids that cause decay and acids from all other sources, primarily food, beverages and your stomach acid. Enamel also shields the very temperature-sensitive dentin from painful contact with hot and cold foods and drinks. Because it contains no living cells, enamel cannot regrow. Once it wears away, it’s gone. Under the right conditions though, early damage can be repaired.
The thin layer of enamel needs to last a lifetime, but it is constantly under pressure from a variety of forces. Tooth wear is mainly the result of three processes: (1) attrition, including wear through tooth-to-tooth contact resulting from bruxing or clenching; (2) abrasion, which is wear produced by something other than another tooth, like toothbrushing or chewing on hard substances, such as the sand and grit in chewing tobacco or holding a pipe stem between your teeth; and (3) erosion, where the teeth are exposed to non-tooth decay-related acids from inside or outside the body. Inside acids can include stomach acids from persons with frequent gastric reflux (GERD), other gastrointestinal disorders, or frequent vomiting in people with bulimia. The most common sources of outside acids are acidic beverages such as carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices, energy and sports drinks, wine, beer and other alcohols, and foods such as fruits, condiments, tomatoes and pickles, to name a few.
Enamel erosion is separate from the tooth decay process, which also damages enamel through acid-producing bacteria. Erosion refers to enamel or dentin wear from the acidic foods and drinks in our diet, from stomach acid in persons with conditions such as gastric reflux, bulimia or anorexia, and from certain medications and other external sources of acid exposure. Enamel erosion is characterized by acid-mediated surface softening which, if frequent or long-lasting, can progress to irreversible loss of enamel surface.
Research shows that low pH is the primary factor in a beverage or food's erosive potential. Normal pH of saliva is around pH7, and research has shown that foods and drinks with a pH below approximately 5.5 can cause erosive effects. Most fruit juices, carbonated sodas, flavored waters, teas, energy and sports drinks, and alcoholic beverages are considered extremely erosive. There is a dose-response relationship between the daily consumption of acidic drinks and dental erosive wear, so the sensible use of these type drinks is appropriate. There are other important factors that can determine how your teeth will be affected by erosive foods and beverages. These include anything that affects saliva amount, composition and flow rate, tooth surface structure, and oral hygiene habits, including brushing and fluoride exposure and chewing and grinding habits.
Most experts believe that during the last 15-20 years there has been a significant increase in the prevalence and severity of erosive tooth wear, particularly in adolescents and young adults, largely linked to the high rate of consumption of soft drinks, including fruit juice and carbonated drinks, by this age group. A combination of erosion and abrasion or attrition accelerates this wear, and a tooth surface softened from erosion is more susceptible to destruction from bruxing or clenching or the abrasion from overly vigorous brushing. The most common sites for tooth erosion are on the chewing surfaces of molars and the inside surfaces of the upper front teeth, but depending on the individual, it also can be found on most tooth surfaces.
Erosive damage to the permanent teeth occurring during childhood can compromise the dentition for the person’s entire lifetime and may require repeated expensive fillings and other dental treatment. So, it is important to understand the destructive forces at work and the preventive behaviors that can protect your teeth. Saliva plays a critical role in the protection of enamel from erosion by acid and provides the components of a protective coating called the “acquired pellicle,” which covers the enamel. It also promotes remineralization of the enamel surface following acid attack, by supplying calcium, phosphate and fluoride ions that can help replace the minerals that are being lost due to the acid. Anything that dehydrates, or dries your mouth, will leave you far more susceptible to both erosion and tooth decay. Dry mouth can occur due to many health conditions, including diabetes, stroke or autoimmune disorders, like Sjogren’s syndrome. Other common causes of dry mouth include hundreds of common over-the-counter and prescription medications, as well as recreational drugs, alcohol use, dehydration, smoking, snoring and mouth breathing.
Enamel erosion has been reported in all age groups; however, dentin erosion is likely to be age- dependent and results from increased levels of gingival recession, root exposures, and other accumulated risk factors. Indeed, as increasing numbers of people are retaining their teeth throughout their lifetime, gingival recession has become a more prominent issue. Gingival recession exposes root dentin to the oral environment, which increases the opportunity for acidic-erosive challenges to the dentin and abrasive brushing habits. This exposed and eroded dentin can then be subject to tooth sensitivity and root decay, leading to the eventual need for fillings, root canals and possibly tooth loss.
There are many substances, habits and health conditions associated with erosion or the dissolving of the tooth surface:
Signs of erosion, particularly in children and adolescents, can be subtle and difficult to detect, and some signs may not be readily visible to the individual. Regular visits to the dentist can help to identify and track erosive changes in tooth appearance. Some signs are more obvious as erosion progresses:
· Sensitivity to hot or cold foods that causes a jolt of pain upon contact
· Dull or discolored teeth that appear to be turning more yellow
· Cracks and chips that cause jagged edges along the teeth
· Cupping, or indentations on the surface of teeth, particularly surfaces where you bite or chew
· Smooth, shiny areas on biting surfaces
Try these tips to protect your enamel:
Studies show the occurrence of enamel and dentin erosion is high and still growing in populations across the world. Even when erosive wear occurs in its milder forms, it is a matter of concern, as it may compromise your otherwise healthy dentition in later life. The erosive wear process is complicated and modified by many chemical, behavioral, tooth, saliva and other associated processes in the mouth. This explains why there is a wide variation in erosion in people that may appear to have similar diets and conditions. Get regular dental care. If you have risk factors and show any signs of erosive wear, it is important to intervene early to help keep your teeth healthy for a lifetime.
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