There are many unexpected risk factors for tooth decay, some of the more obvious but some of them are rather surprising. In this blog post, we examine some of those risk factors and what you can do about them.
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.
So what else 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 would only happen if you are frequently exposed to extremes of temperature, so the effects are cumulative. 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. Chlorine reacts with water to produce a weak form of hydrochloric acid, which can wear down teeth. 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, so pools should have their chlorine levels checked regularly. While swimming, keep your mouth closed to avoid exposing your teeth to chlorinated water.
Using hay fever remedies
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. 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. 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 after eating using an alcohol-free mouthwash. Try not 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 and it is thought that these hormones cause an exaggerated reaction to dental plaque, triggering inflammation. Good dental care will minimise inflammation and help prevent plaque from forming.
The Dental Centre London are a private dental practice situated in the heart of Euston. They offer a range of dental treatments including oral healthcare advice to local people.