Public Health

10 Surprising Habits Killing Your Teeth

Your teeth deserve better.

Are you destroying your pearly whites without realizing it? You might be doing permanent damage if you’re a nail biter or using your teeth to rip off the price tag from that new dress. Stop and heed this advice: “Brush your teeth twice daily, floss daily, regularly visit your dentist and have a good, balanced diet. All of those things are going to protect you from damaging your teeth and enamel,” says Ana Paula Ferraz-Dougherty, a dentist in San Antonio and consumer adviser for the American Dental Association. Here are some surprising ways you’re damaging your teeth:


1. Overdoing sugary food and drinks – even cough drops

Forget cookies, cupcakes and candy. Those are obvious cavity-promoting foods. “Astonishingly enough, even things like throat lozenges can be bad,” says Ruchi Sahota, a dentist in Fremont, California, and consumer adviser for the ADA. “But we also want to think about where we might be getting other sources of sugar, like sports drinks and not enough water.” (You need water to wash your teeth of the sugar that creates cavities.) The good news is you can help stave off cavities by using toothpaste recommended by your dentist and keeping the sugary snacks to a minimum.

2. Lack of water

Skip the energy drinks, flavored sports waters and ice teas if you want to dodge cavities. Instead, drink H2O. “Not only is it good to hydrate your body, but it’s good to hydrate your mouth,” Sahoto says. “A dry mouth can be an environment where it’s easier for bacteria to cause cavities.” Flouride is found in tap water and some bottled water and can ward off tooth decay. “That’s why it’s important to drink as much as possible,” Sahoto says.

3. Nail biting

Get your fingers out of your mouth. When we bite our nails, we put our jaws in a protrusive position, meaning the lower jaw projects out and moves in a repetitive, unnatural way, Sahoto explains. It can cause pain and discomfort in the jaw, plus wear down the enamel on your pearly whites. “It’s also a very common cause for chipped teeth,” Ferraz-Dougherty says. Need to kick the habit? Try using a bitter-tasting nail polish or reducing your stress levels.

4. Heavy brushing

“Brusha, brusha, brusha!” Jan had great intentions in the musical “Grease,” but go easy on your chompers, Sahoto says. “Brushing aggressively can abrade our teeth,” she says. Not only can it strip the teeth of their enamel, promoting cavities and decay, but it can also cause the gums to recede. “That doesn’t look very nice, but it also exposes the roots.” Sahoto says. Think of brushing as a massage for your teeth and gums – gentle strokes will do the trick.

5. Consuming acidic food or drinks

People who have acid reflux or drink lemon water can expect to see damage to their teeth, says Genaro Romo, a dentist in Chicago and consumer adviser for the ADA. “So often, [acidity] is overlooked,” Romo says. Acidic foods can strip the teeth of their natural enamel – the protective coating that blocks cavities and tooth decay. Citric fruits and fruit juices, sparkling water with lemon and even certain salad dressings are so acidic that they can cause the tooth’s enamel to erode.

6. Neglecting baby teeth

Kids might lose their baby teeth, but that doesn’t mean they’re not an important part of their health. In fact, these first teeth help predict how healthy adult teeth will be, Romo says. Baby teeth are meant to fall out, but each tooth has a timeline. If a tooth decays and is pulled out too early, there may be insufficient space available for the adult tooth to grow. Losing a baby tooth prematurely can shift other teeth, forcing a child to need braces later in life.

7. Using your teeth as tools

You had that one friend in college who could pop open a beer with his mouth. Have you seen him since? Using your teeth as tools to open bottles, rip off tags or for any purpose besides chewing food can cause serious fractures. These can worsen over time and become infected, Sahoto says – check for discolored teeth in the days, weeks or months after a trauma.

8. Thumb sucking

It sounds innocent, but thumb sucking is considered a trauma, dentists say. The habit pushes on the upper palate, forcing permanent teeth to move or spread apart. And it’s a hard one to break, Sahoto says. “That’s why it’s important kids see the dentist by age 1 or when the first teeth appear,” she adds. Dentists can talk to parents about proper dental care and ways to break the habit, such as using praise when a child doesn’t suck his or her thumb rather than criticism when they do, or encouraging the child to limit their thumb sucking to bedtime rather than all day.

9. Smoking

This is a given. Smoking has proven health consequences – like increasing the risk for oral cancer and respiratory conditions – and that extends to teeth. “The chemicals found in tobacco can really create some very stubborn stains,” Sahoto says, plus createbad breath. Huffing on cigarettes also increases plaque and bacteria, which can lead to gum disease. That’s not good when you consider gum disease is the most common cause for tooth loss, according to The ADA suggests trying to quit smoking by exercising, chewing gum and staying occupied.

10. Chewing ice

You take a sip of your soda, catch a couple ice cubes in your mouth and what do you do? Chew them, right? Bad move. Don’t do this often – or ever – if you want to prevent a painful injury. “Ice is very hard. It can cause breakage of teeth and fillings,” Ferraz-Dougherty says. “It’s a bad habit that people have, and it’s not necessary. It’s not worth the risk of breaking a tooth.” Long-term effects also include jaw pain and tooth sensitivity.


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