Tooth and Egg Composite Photograph
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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.

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Diagram of Tooth
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What Discolors Teeth?

Enamel may seem white, but it’s clear. Light can shine through it. The layer underneath, dentin, shows through. That’s what makes a tooth look light or dark.  

Over time, things like coffee, tea, wine, and cigarettes can make the outer layer of your teeth look dingy yellow or gray.

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SEM Photograph of Tooth Decay
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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. 

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Woman Enjoying Ice Cream Cone
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Tooth Decay and Sensitivity

What happens when tooth enamel is damaged? The inner layer gets exposed, and decay can start. Cavities aren't the only problem.

Teeth with damaged enamel can react to extreme heat or cold. Eating ice cream or sipping hot coffee can be a pain, or at least unpleasant.

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Bacteria in Mouth That Causes Tooth Decay
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How Bacteria Destroy Enamel

After you eat, bacteria in your mouth feast on sugars from sweet foods and starches. This makes acids that can destroy enamel. The green rods in this slide are bacteria that cause mild gum disease, also called gingivitis.

Acids in sodas, juices, and drinks are harmful, too. Some are harsher than battery acid. Over time, they cause erosion. That shrinks the tooth.

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Young Woman Drinking a Glass of Red Wine
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Wine Lovers, Beware

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

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

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Teeth Damaged by Bulimia
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Eating and Digestive Problems

Some health conditions can damage tooth enamel. 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.

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Pill On Tongue and Dry Mouth
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The Problem With Dry Mouth

Saliva takes care of acids in your mouth that erode your teeth. Its presence helps preserve tooth enamel.

 

If you have a dry mouth caused by a drug side effect or health condition, the acids stick around longer. That can cause more damage.

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Bruxism Damaged Teeth
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Grinding Teeth

Another cause of tooth enamel damage is bruxism, or teeth grinding. Over time, the constant clenching and friction can wear down or fracture the enamel. In this slide, teeth grinding has worn down the upper and lower front teeth.

Bruxism is often worst when you sleep -- that's when you can't control it. Reducing stress may help. Some people wear a special mouth guard to bed. Ask your dentist if this is a problem for you. You can find the guards in drugstores or discount stores, or your dentist may make you a custom model. 

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Woman Opening Bottle with Teeth
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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.

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Smiling Kids at Lemonade Stand
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Tooth Enamel Erosion in Children

Many experts say tooth enamel erosion is on the rise -- especially in children. Why? Some say today’s kids get too many acidic drinks and sodas.

The switch to bottled water could also be part of the problem. People are using less tap water, which means kids may be getting less fluoride.

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Woman Playing With Chewing Gum
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Tips to Keep Your Smile Safe

You can take simple steps to help your teeth. Brush after you eat or drink. Use a soft toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. A mouth rinse that has fluoride can also help.

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 with xylitol after eating to get your saliva going --  another way to stop acid damage.

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Teenager Flossing Teeth
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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.

Use mouthwash, too. Choose one that fights bacteria and has fluoride. Not only does it freshen your breath, it can also help your enamel.

Follow directions when using teeth-whitening products. They can be bad for your teeth if you don’t use them right or you use them too often.

If you need pointers on how to care for your teeth, just ask your dentist.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 12/1/2016 Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on December 01, 2016

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
(1)    Dr. Tom Farley/drtomfarley.com
(2)    Phototake/WebMD
(3)    Eye of Science/Photoresearchers, Inc.
(4)    Imagesource/Photolibrary
(5)    Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc / Phototake
(6)    Tetra Images/Photolibrary
(7)    Courtesy of Dr. Brian McKay /acld.com
(8)    Medicimage/Phototake
(9)    Photo courtesy of Dr. Marcus Whitmore / planodental.com
(10) Creatas/Photolibrary
(11) Cohen/Ostrow/Digital Vision
(12) Crystal Cartier/Brand X Pictures
(13) Lisa Pines/White

REFERENCES:

Academy of General Dentistry.
American Dental Association.
British Dental Health Association.
Mandel, L. Journal of the American Dental Association, 2005.
Massachusetts Dental Association.
National Institutes of Health Genetics Home Reference.
Sarrett, D.C. Journal of the American Dental Association, 2002.
Wiegand, A. Occupational Medicine, 2007.

Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on December 01, 2016

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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