If acids erode the outer layers of your teeth, it can cause oral health problems. It may even change your teeth’s appearance.
When certain acids come in contact with the surface of your teeth for long enough, they can weaken or wear away the outer structure.
Acids can come from inside and outside your body. If they manage to wear away some of your teeth, you may be at higher risk of tooth decay, tooth loss or other kinds of damage. Even in less severe cases, dental erosion might change the way your teeth look, too.
What is dental erosion?
Dental erosion happens when acids wear down the outer layers of a tooth. These outer layers are made of hard tissues, and the outermost layers are enamel and dentine. Enamel is the hard, protective outer layer, but acid can wear it down or weaken it, making it more easily damaged in other ways.
If the erosion goes past your enamel, it can begin to wear down the next, slightly softer layer (dentine). Without a healthy layer of enamel to protect it, exposed dentine can cause sensitivity or pain. It also might have a more yellow-ish look.
What can cause tooth erosion?
Often, acids are the main culprits in dental erosion. But there are a few other things that can contribute to weakened enamel, like:
- brushing your teeth too hard
- using hard-bristled toothbrushes
- bruxism (a fancy word for “teeth grinding”).
Because saliva helps wash away acids from the surface of your teeth, conditions like dry mouth can make your teeth more vulnerable to acids, too.
Acids are more likely to come in contact with our teeth when we eat or drink substances that are, well, acidic:
- most fruit and fruit juices, especially apple and citrus juices
- many processed foods or drinks
- fizzy drinks and energy drinks
- wine and many other types of alcohol
- many alcoholic mixers
- lollies, especially sour or fruit-flavoured types.
Acids that come from our stomachs
Vomiting, reflux and certain medications can expose your teeth to acids from your stomach.
That means you could be at greater risk of erosion if you’re experiencing conditions like reflux, morning sickness or eating disorders. You should speak with a qualified doctor about these conditions.
Acid reflux can be a little sneaky. If you experience reflux, you might not always notice symptoms. That’s one more reason to get routine dental check-ups — dentists and hygienists usually look for any sign of dental erosion, which might itself be a sign of acid reflux.
What are signs of tooth erosion?
Ok, we say this a lot, but it’s best to talk to a dental professional if you’re concerned about a possible dental problem. Some symptoms aren’t always visible to the naked eye or to those without professional training. So, seriously, consider making an appointment for a check-up if it’s been a long time.
With that caveat in mind, here are some common signs of tooth erosion:
- teeth that have an increasingly yellow hue (this can mean the dentine is exposed)
- transparent teeth (the transparency often starts near the tooth’s edges)
- teeth that look shiny or glossy
- sensitivity to food or drink that’s hot, cold or extra sugary
- changes in tooth shape and/or gaps between them seem to be getting bigger
- tooth fillings that start to look more prominent or visible
- breaks or cracks in your teeth.
Does tooth enamel grow back? Is erosion permanent?
The bad news is, once it’s gone, enamel doesn’t come back. The good news is there are ways to help protect your enamel, and a dentist can offer treatment options for damaged teeth.
Dentists and hygienists tend to have solutions for building your enamel (if your dentist provides a breakdown of services, these often show up with the word “remineralisation”). This might be a fluoride treatment, which can come in the form of a rinse, gel or foam.
If the damage is severe enough, a dentist might recommend options like:
How to help prevent tooth erosion
Dental erosion can't always be prevented, but there can be ways to help reduce its effects.
Moderate your acid intake
Try to cut down on food or drink that's high in acid. Check the ingredients lists if you're not sure — be on the lookout for the words “citric acid” or “sodium citrate.”
Minimise how much time your teeth spend with acid
You might not be able to completely cut acid from your diet — it’s in a lot of stuff, including food that may have health benefits (like, say, a fresh orange). As a rule of thumb, if something is carbonated, sour or citrus, be aware of how much time it spends in contact with your teeth.
You can help reduce the effects of acid in food and drink by:
- rinsing your mouth with water afterwards
- not snacking or drinking between meals (unless it’s water)
- drinking milk or fluoridated tap water to help strengthen your teeth
- eating/drinking dairy products like low-fat cheese or milk, which may help neutralise acids
- drinking through a straw to help reduce contact of acids with your teeth.
Floss and brush — carefully
Brushing and flossing your teeth is important, but when you brush your teeth is important, too. Enamel can be weaker if it’s just been in contact with acid, making it easier to damage when you brush. Instead, rinse your mouth with water and wait about 30–60 minutes after eating or drinking to brush your teeth.
If you’ve just vomited, rinse your mouth with water and wait about 30–60 minutes before brushing your teeth. You could smear some toothpaste on your teeth to freshen your mouth and help strengthen the enamel in the meantime.
And always try to use toothbrushes with soft bristles.
Talk to a dentist
Routine dental check-ups may help your dentist monitor the condition of your teeth. If it’s been a while since you’ve had a check-up, consider booking one.
Want to speak with a dental professional? Search for one near you.
The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.