5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Teeth

Medically Reviewed by Michael Friedman, DDS on December 15, 2015
5 min read

Learning how to take care of your teeth is as much a part of growing up as learning to tie your shoes, recite the alphabet, or memorize the multiplication tables.

You brush. You floss. You don't use your choppers to pop off a bottle cap or to crush ice. It really should be as easy as A-B-C.

However, when it comes to our teeth, many of us still have a thing or two to learn. Here are 5 facts about your pearly whites that you might not know, even after all these years.

Oh, sure, a toothbrush and a strand of floss wielded often and wisely will do wonders for your teeth. You should use both.

But your teeth's first line of defense against what you put in your mouth is something that's already there. "Saliva is nature's disinfecting cavity fighter," Kimberly Harms, a dentist from Farmington, MN, says.

Tooth decay is caused by bacteria that feeds on sugars from food and drinks. That bacteria -- called plaque -- can stick to your teeth, producing acids that eat through the enamel on your teeth. Saliva, that trusty old friend, helps rinse out your mouth and neutralize that process.

If you have a dry mouth, getting the same result could be tough. "The buffering effects of saliva, the ability of saliva to counter the bad effects of sugar," says Howard Pollick, a San Francisco based dentist and a spokesperson for the American Dental Association, "[means] if you don't have enough saliva, [you have] a real problem."

People who take lots of meds can be especially susceptible to dry mouth and possible tooth decay. Pollick says he carries sugar-free mints around with him. "That's what I pop in my mouth when my mouth feels dry or I can't get a snack and I want something," Pollick says. "That's what I recommend."

Another good choice: Keep a bottle of water handy. It'll do your teeth some good.

Worse than a big old piece of chocolate cake after dinner or that mid-afternoon Snickers break is the non-stop snack-snack-snacking or sip-sip-sipping that goes on in offices and schools across America. "It's not just how much sugar or starch we eat," Harms says. "It's how you eat."

Remember, the acids created by the bacteria that attack all that carbohydrate-laden stuff you swallow -- whether it's that spoonful of sugar in your morning coffee or that nicely glazed donut -- are what get at your teeth. So the more often you eat sugars and other carbs, the more often those acids get a chance to chip away at your choppers.

In short, it's better (for your teeth, at least) to pig out once than to eat a lot of little meals.

"If you're eating an entire meal, that's really one encounter, one acid attack," Harms says. "But if you're sipping a soft drink, or eating anything with a carbohydrate in it... each time you take a sip, you're going to create an acid attack on your teeth. We have a saying: 'Sip all day, risk decay.'"

Pollick says, "The clearance of that sugar from the mouth takes about 20 minutes. During that 20 minutes, the bacteria on your teeth are very active... and they convert that sugar to acid." But then within 20 minutes, the acid on your teeth is "sort of" neutralized. "But then if you have another sugar product in your mouth, your mouth is constantly exposed to those bad effects of the sugar and bacteria in your mouth, and you're constantly getting this demineralization of the tooth surface." That, he says is what leads to tooth decay and the softening of teeth. "Eventually," he adds, "[this leads to] pain and root canals; or maybe the teeth need to be pulled. It's truly devastating for some people."

The naturally occurring mineral fluoride can help prevent tooth decay. That's not disputed.

How much fluoride is too much is the question. Because of ever-increasing sources, including naturally occurring; fluoride added to community water supplies; and what you get in mouthwashes, toothpastes, and elsewhere, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended in 2010 to limit the amount of fluoride in community drinking water, dropping it from a previous range of 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter to a flat 0.7.

Many people were concerned with cases of fluorosis, a condition that causes cosmetic white spots on teeth. But those cases are almost always mild or very mild. Still, it's a good idea to make sure your community has safe levels of fluoride in its drinking water. Be careful how much other fluoride you use.

And keep an eye out for kids. Children up to 3 should use a rice-sized smear of fluoridated toothpaste. Kids from 3-6 should use a pea-sized amount.

Other than just being awfully gross, if you (or a kid in the house) makes a habit of swallowing toothpaste, you (or that kid) stand a chance of getting too much fluoride. As the tube says, don't swallow.

But, Pollick says, it's not necessary to rinse afterward. He says you can rinse, but the longer the fluoride stays in contact with your teeth, the more effect it can have in preventing tooth decay.

The idea behind not rinsing is the same as it is for in-office treatments where dentists apply a fluoride-rich gel, paste, or "varnish" to teeth and often let it sit for approximately 30 minutes. Some people at higher risk can undergo these treatments several times a year. Doctors also can prescribe high-fluoride toothpaste or rinses.

One in 7 adults aged 35 to 44 has gum disease. For adults older than 65, that increases to 1 in every 4.

That's a problem, because tooth decay and other infections in the mouth may be associated with health problems such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

"Oral health is an integral part of overall health," Harms says. "What people don't realize is that people who have higher levels of gum disease also have a higher level of heart disease." They also, she says, have a higher rate of low birthweight babies and premature births.

One group of people who have higher levels of gum disease, Harms says, are people who have diabetes..

"I think people need to realize that the bacteria and the inflammation associated with your body fighting the bacteria can have an effect in other areas of the body. We don't quite understand all of this yet. But we know there's a link."