5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Teeth

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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Teeth

Brace yourself: Sugar Isn’t the only dental villain.
By Karen Springen
WebMD Feature

You use your teeth to talk, chew, and smile. But here are some other “teeth facts” you probably didn’t know about your pearly whites.

WebMD: Better Information. Better Health.

No. 1: Sour can be just as bad as sweet.

Sugar isn’t the only dental villain that undermines healthy teeth. Acidic, low-pH foods — sour candy, soft drinks, fruit juices — soften teeth. The result: enamel erosion and diminished tooth size. “Citric acid is the worst acid for your teeth,” says Martha Keels, DDS, chief of pediatric dentistry at Duke’s Children’s Hospital. “We’re seeing acid erosion every day.”

Dentists’ worst nightmare: ultra-sour, ultra-sticky, ultra-sugary kids’ candies such as Warheads and Toxic Waste. Even sour gummy vitamins can be culprits.

“These sour candies, when tested, have a really low pH, nearing battery acid,” says Robyn Loewen, DDS, a fellow in the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and a diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry. “I liken it to an ice cube that’s been left on the counter. It melts the tooth.”

To make matters worse, children’s tooth enamel isn’t mature until a decade after their teeth erupt, Loewen says. Because it’s softer, “it’s more susceptible to the acid.”

Adults aren’t off the hook: Low pH fare includes sour mango Altoids and even sugar-free soft drinks.

If you’re going to consume highly acidic foods, do it during mealtime, Keels says. You’ll minimize the effects by consuming them along with other foods. Better yet, chew xylitol-containing gum, such as Ice Breakers Ice Cubes, Trident, or Orbit, Keels says. Xylitol fakes out bacteria and may even help prevent cavities. Gums containing Recaldent, such as Trident, will help teeth remineralize and resist tooth decay. Finally, brushing periodically with baking soda has been shown to neutralize acids in the mouth, which reduces the amount of acid-loving bacteria that cause cavities.

No. 2: Enamel is the hardest substance in the body, but it can break easily.

Ice, popcorn, and tongue and lip piercings can chip teeth.

And unlike skin, teeth can’t re-grow. “We’re not like beavers,” says American Dental Association spokesman Richard Price, DMD.

Dentists detest ice and popcorn. Eating a popcorn kernel is like eating “stone,” Price says. And ice is brittle. “You have a combination of something ultra hard and something ultra hard,” he says. Be especially careful if your mouth is full of fillings. “You wouldn’t run a marathon with a bad leg,” he says. “Don’t chomp away if your teeth aren’t as strong as they used to be.”

Dentists also “hate” piercings of the tongue and lip, says Nuntiya Kakanantadilok, DMD, director of the division of pediatric dentistry at Montefiore Medical Center. The metal jewelry harbors bacteria — and can chip teeth.

A metal barbell-like tongue ring is especially bad. “Every time you talk, it hits your teeth,” says Paul Casamassimo, DDS, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and chairman of pediatric dentistry at Ohio State University.

A 2007 review study published in the American Journal of Dentistry showed that 14% to 41% of people with oral piercings suffered from tooth fractures and wear. They noted that piercing in the mouth may cause “significant oral deformities” and “may lead to tooth loss.”

To keep healthy teeth, treat them with TLC. “Don’t use your teeth as pliers,” Price says. “They weren’t made to straighten out the tine of the fork.”

No. 3. You can be missing teeth at any age.

Although many people get a tooth, or all 32, pulled, some folks are born missing choppers. The most common missing ones are the wisdom teeth. The second most common is the lateral incisor, which is located next to the big front tooth. People can inherit missing teeth.

Still, the most frequent causes of tooth loss are gum disease and cavities.

A number of people find it cheaper and easier to pull all their teeth than to pay for fillings and implants. After all, implants can cost about $2,000 per tooth, whereas a cheap set of dentures can cost less than $1,000, Keels says.

Studies show that 22.8% of Americans 65-74 and 29.4% of Americans 75 and older wear dentures.

No. 4: Too much fluoride can be bad for your teeth.

We know that fluoride is important for healthy teeth. But kids who ingest excessive amounts of this substance when they’re 8 or younger, when their permanent teeth are developing under the gums, can develop a condition known as fluorosis. Typically fluorisis starts out causing white spots, but they can become brown. Unfortunately, fluorisis stains are “intrinsic,” which means the dentist cannot simply polish off a surface stain.

Excessive fluoride causes teeth to become porous. The problem is not the water supply: Since 1950, the American Dental Association has recommended fluoridation of community water supplies because it makes teeth harder and more resistant to decay. The problem occurs when children ingest extra fluoride, typically by swallowing too much toothpaste. Unlike water, toothpaste “is meant to work only topically,” Kakanantadilok says.

To make sure children don’t swallow toothpaste, supervise them while they’re brushing. Tell them to squeeze out only a pea-size amount of paste so that they won’t accidentally swallow too much. Most cases of fluorosis involve children who used more than that. Kakanantadilok recommends that kids stick to fluoride-free paste until they understand that they need to spit it out, not swallow it.

No. 5: Braces can cause cavities.

Brush well if you want your straightened teeth to be healthy teeth. Otherwise, food, bacteria, and acid stuck around braces can “slough the enamel away,” says Raymond George Sr., DMD, president of the American Association of Orthodontists.

The result can look bad.

“You actually start forming cavities around the brackets of the braces,” Kakanantadilok says. Even if the decay doesn’t fully develop into a cavity, it can cause “demineralization.” The result are light spots on the teeth. (As cavities progress, they then get darker.)

The tongue is nature’s toothbrush, Keels says. When people get braces, they tend to stop rubbing their tongue against their teeth because it’s not comfortable to hit metal. “You’re not tongue brushing anymore,” she says. The result can be a build-up of “gunk.”

About 3.9 million U.S. kids are getting orthodontic treatment, and 1.1 million U.S. adults are, too, according to the American Association of Orthodontists. In the age of perfect movie-star teeth, adults want nicer choppers, too.

But it’s not just about looks. Adults also want healthier teeth. After all, Keels says, “crowded mouths are harder to clean.”