You probably take steps to prevent tooth decay—that is, dental caries, better known as cavities—by brushing and flossing your teeth, especially after eating “cariogenic” foods, such as sweets. But even if you do that, you’re still at risk for dental erosion. This growing and underappreciated problem now affects as many as one in five Americans, according to a recent series of articles in the Journal of the California Dental Association.
Dental erosion is the acidic dissolution of teeth—starting with the softening (demineralization) of the enamel and underlying dentin and subsequent structural tooth loss. It’s caused by acids in food and beverages as well as by regurgitated stomach acid resulting from reflux disease (in contrast, cavities are caused by acid-producing bacteria on the teeth, which feed on sugars). Overbrushing, abrasive toothpaste, tooth grinding and other excessive mechanical wear and tear can dramatically worsen the damage caused by erosion.
Why the rise in erosion? Largely because Americans have been drinking more acidic beverages and have become heavier (obesity increases the risk of reflux disease). Older people are also at risk because many take medications that reduce saliva flow, making their teeth more vulnerable to acid. And ironically, in our zeal to clean and polish our teeth, many of us overdo it and thus abrade them.
If your teeth could talk
If you know you have erosion, or want to prevent it, take these steps:
- Limit acidic beverages, such as soda (especially cola and citrus flavors, including diet sodas), energy drinks (such as Red Bull), sports drinks (such as Gatorade), citrus juices and wine. Repeated and prolonged exposures—as in sipping or swirling the liquid in your mouth—are most erosive. Sugary acidic drinks are a double whammy, since they also promote cavities.
- Limit acidic foods such as oranges, lemons, grapefruit, sour candies, raisins and vinegary items—or at least eat them with other foods, not on their own.
- Rinse with water after consuming acidic foods or beverages. Rinsing with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and/or a fluoride mouthwash can further help.
- Eat dairy products. Their calcium helps reduce the damaging effects of acids; their casein enhances remineralization.
- Chew sugarless gum to increase saliva flow, which helps wash away acids.
- Use a less abrasive toothpaste. Whitening pastes are most abrasive. Those containing baking soda, which is alkaline and nonabrasive, tend to be gentlest on teeth.
- Use a toothbrush with soft bristles, but not too forcefully or for more than a couple of minutes. It’s easy to overdo it with an electric toothbrush, since it requires little effort.