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Tooth enamel is the strongest substance in the human body. This semi-clear, hard, outer layer protects teeth from the daily wear and tear of biting and chewing, as well as temperature extremes from hot or cold foods and drinks. Enamel also guards against acids and chemicals that can damage teeth.

When this shell erodes, your teeth are more likely to get cavities and decay. You may notice you react more to hot or cold foods, drinks, and sweets, since they can get through holes in your enamel to the nerves inside.

But there’s good news -- a few easy habits can keep your enamel intact and protect your pearly whites.

What Causes Erosion?

Damage to teeth’s outer layer can come from:

  • Too many sweets. Bacteria in your mouth thrive on sugar, and they make acids that can eat away at enamel. The problem gets worse if you don’t clean your teeth regularly.
  • Lots of sour foods or candies. They have a lot of acid.  
  • Dry mouth. Saliva helps prevent tooth decay by washing away bacteria acids and leftover food in your mouth, and restoring the pH level (acid) to a more neutral level.
  • Acid reflux disease, GERD, or heartburn. Reflux brings stomach acids up to the mouth, where they can damage enamel.
  • Bulimia, alcoholism, or binge drinking. People with these conditions vomit often, which is hard on teeth.  
  • Drugs or supplements that have a lot of acid, like aspirin or vitamin C.
  • Brushing too hard or grinding your teeth.

What Are the Symptoms?

If your teeth start losing their outer shell, you might notice:

  • Pain when eating hot, cold, or sweet foods or drinks
  • Rough or uneven edges on the teeth, which can crack or chip when they lose their enamel
  • Smooth, shiny surfaces on the teeth, a sign of mineral loss 
  • Yellow teeth
  • Cupping, or dents, that show up where you bite and chew

How Can You Protect Your Enamel?

Good dental care at home and the dentist’s office is the best way to keep your mouth healthy. Make it a point to:

  1. Cut down on acidic drinks and foods, like sodas and citrus fruits and juices. When you do have something with acid, have it at mealtimes to make it easier on your enamel.  You can also switch to products like low-acid orange juice.
  2. Rinse your mouth with water right after you eat or drink something acidic. 
  3. Use a straw for sodas and fruit juices so they bypass the teeth. Don’t swish them around in your mouth.
  4. Finish a meal with a glass of milk or a piece of cheese to cancel out acids.
  5. Chew sugar-free gum with xylitol, which lowers the amount of acid in your mouth. Gum also helps you make more saliva, which strengthens your teeth with key minerals.
  6. Drink more water during the day if you have dry mouth.
  7. Use a soft toothbrush, and try not to brush too hard.
  8. Wait at least an hour to brush after you've had acidic foods or drinks. They soften the enamel and make it more prone to damage from your toothbrush.
  9. Use fluoride toothpaste and mouthwash. Your dentist can tell you which products can protect your teeth and make them less sensitive.
  10. Get treatment for conditions like bulimia, alcoholism, or GERD.