Sometimes, the things we love the most can be the ones that are most harmful to our teeth. Although we may be biologically programmed to seek out sweet and salty tastes, these things can be very harmful to our oral health. Acid erosion is one of the most common issues dentists see. Here’s what causes it, its risks, and ways to prevent (and treat) damage caused by acid erosion.

What causes acid erosion?

Imagine a rocky cliff, battered by the waves of the sea. In some ways, your teeth resemble those cliffs, strong and seemingly incapable of being washed away. Like the cliffs, though, over time your teeth face a barrage of potentially harmful forces.

Acid erosion occurs when acids on the teeth over time begin to slowly wash away a tooth’s protective enamel. Even tooth enamel, the hardest tissue in the human body, is vulnerable to damage.

What causes acid erosion on teeth?

As you may have guessed, some of your favorite beverages and foods can put you at risk for acid erosion on teeth. Fruit juices, coffee, and soft drinks are highly acidic and bathe your whole mouth in acid every time you consume them. Sports drinks and citrus drinks (your morning orange juice and lemonade at a baseball game) also impact tooth enamel.

Acidic beverages aren’t the only cause of acid erosion. Frequent vomiting is also a cause. Pregnant women with morning sickness and people suffering from the eating disorder bulimia often experience acid erosion on teeth. Stomach acid causes enough damage that dentists are often able to diagnose an eating disorder in a regular exam.

People with gastroesophageal acid reflux disease (GERD) also experience higher rates of acid erosion. This condition causes an involuntary backup of acid into the mouth. Not only is it unpleasant, but it can also damage teeth.

In some cases, tooth erosion at gum line occurs. This is called abfraction and is caused most often by bruxism and the extreme pressure it brings to all surfaces of the tooth. Bruxism is one of the most damaging conditions to your oral health and can set in motion a variety of problems, not the least of which is acid erosion.

What are the risks of acid erosion?

Tooth enamel is the strongest substance in the human body for a reason. It’s there to protect your teeth throughout your life. Once enamel is erased though acid erosion, it does not grow back.

The earliest sign of acid erosion is increased tooth sensitivity. As the enamel wears away, the sensitive nerves in the soft center of the tooth (the dentin) are exposed. Most people report increased sensitivity to hot and cold beverages, plus pain when eating something sweet. Additionally, even a breath of air can cause a twinge of pain.

Another symptom of acid erosion is changing tooth color. Your tooth enamel protects your teeth and is white, but the tissues underneath are yellow. As enamel wears away, teeth may become more yellow over time.

The bottom edges of the teeth may begin to look transparent and thinner over time, as well. There is generally less dentin in the very tips of teeth (this is protective as well, so tips can wear naturally as we age and still allow us to eat without pain). Tips of the teeth may begin to wear away as enamel disappears, causing teeth to appear smaller and thinner.

Once enamel is completely eroded, teeth are at risk for cavity and other more serious dental issues.

How can I stop acid erosion on my teeth?

Once you recognize the first signs of acid erosion, it is important to take steps to prevent further damage. While tooth enamel cannot be regenerated, what remains can be protected from further damage.

The easiest change to make is to switch from highly acidic and sugary beverages to plain water. Water is better for your health and prevents soaking your teeth with acid on a regular basis. If you must have your soft drinks and coffee, sipping them through a straw can keep most of the beverage from contact with your teeth. Also, don’t sip at a drink throughout the day unless it’s water. The constant contact prolongs your exposure, even if you don’t drink that much more.

Take care to rinse your mouth with plain water after you drink or eat acidic things, but wait to brush for a full 30 minutes. Brushing sooner, even with acid erosion toothpaste, can actually worsen acid erosion.

If you are vomiting frequently, rinse your mouth with a baking soda solution to neutralize the acid, then wait 30 minutes before brushing teeth.

If the underlying cause of the acid erosion is GERD, talk to your doctor. They can recommend treatments to neutralize stomach acid and minimize reflux to help protect your teeth.

Can tooth enamel be restored?

As noted above, once enamel is worn away, it’s gone forever. Acid erosion treatment focuses mainly on restoring the structural and cosmetic aspects of your teeth, even as you work on stopping further damage.

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