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How Enamel Protects Your Teeth

Enamel is kind of like an eggshell. It protects the soft part of the tooth inside.

Unlike an egg’s outer layer, it's tough. It’s the hardest substance in your body. With some luck -- and good dental care -- it can withstand decades of biting, chewing, and crunching.

What Discolors Teeth?

Over time, coffee, tea, wine, cigarettes, and other things can stain the outer layer of your chompers a dingy yellow or gray.

Enamel might seem white, but it’s clear. The layer underneath, dentin, shows through, and that’s what makes a tooth look light or dark.  

From Erosion to Cavities

As tough as tooth enamel is, it can be worn down. Acids from foods and bacteria eat away at it, causing erosion and cavities.

In this slide, cavities are forming in the center.

Enamel can also be chipped or cracked. Unlike bone, it can’t grow back on its own. The damage is permanent.

Tooth Decay and Sensitivity

When enamel is damaged, the tooth's inner layer gets exposed and decay can start. Cavities aren't the only problem, though.

Affected teeth may feel more sensitive to heat or cold. Eating ice cream or sipping hot coffee can be a pain, or at least unpleasant.

How Bacteria Destroy Enamel

After you eat, bacteria in your mouth feast on sugars from sweets and starches. This makes acids that can destroy your teeth's outer layer. The green rods in this slide are bacteria that cause mild gum disease, also called gingivitis.

The acids in sodas, juices, and drinks are harmful, too. Some are harsher than battery acid. Over time, they cause erosion, wearing down the tooth.

Wine Lovers, Beware

Drinking it many times a day -- and swishing it in your mouth -- puts your enamel in contact with harmful acids.

It’s better to have a glass of wine, soda, or sweet tea with a meal instead of sipping it over several hours.

Eating and Digestive Problems

Some health conditions can damage enamel, too. This slide shows erosion from the eating disorder bulimia, caused when stomach acid enters the mouth because of frequent vomiting.

Acid reflux, stomach problems, and other eating disorders can have this effect.

The Problem With Dry Mouth

Saliva takes care of acids in the mouth that erode your teeth. If you have a dry mouth caused by a drug side effect or a health condition, the acids stick around longer. This causes more damage.

Grinding Teeth

Your dentist may call this bruxism, and it can also damage your enamel. Over time, the constant clenching and friction can wear it down or crack it. In this slide, the upper and lower front teeth have been ground down.

It's often worst when you sleep -- that's when you can't control it. Ask your dentist if you should wear a mouth guard to bed. You can buy the guards in a drugstore or discount store, or your dentist may make you a custom model. Also, you might clench or grind less if you ease your stress. 

Your Mouth Is Not a Bottle Opener!

Never open containers with your teeth. You could chip or crack them.

Gnawing on anything else -- like pens or fingernails -- or chomping down on seeds, popcorn kernels, or ice could have the same result.

Tooth Enamel Erosion in Children

Many experts say this problem is on the rise. Why? Some say today’s kids get too many acidic drinks and sodas.

Switching to bottled water, which means less tap water with fluoride, could also be part of the problem.

Tips to Keep Your Smile Safe

You can take simple steps to help your teeth. Brush 30-60 minutes after you eat or drink. The time will allow the acid-weakened enamel to harden with the help of your saliva. Use a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. 

You can also have some milk or a piece of cheese after a meal to zap the acids.

Love gum? You’re in luck. Chew sugar-free gum after eating to get your saliva going --  another way to stop acid damage.

Improve Your Dental Hygiene

Floss your teeth. Don’t use toothpicks.

Brush your teeth gently. Scouring teeth with a hard-bristled toothbrush can damage enamel.

Follow directions when using teeth-whitening products. They can be bad for your pearly whites if you use them the wrong way or too often.

And remember, you can always give your dentist a call if you want more advice or you have concerns.

What Causes Tooth Enamel Erosion

Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on June 23, 2014

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