Your teeth are made from tough stuff. Their outer layer, the enamel, is the strongest substance in your body.

But habits, health conditions, and injuries can lead to wear and tear.

Learn what can damage your smile and what you can do to protect it.

Grinding and Clenching

Your teeth are meant to bite down and chew. Still, too much of it can cause damage.

“In the long term, the friction can wear away at enamel and fracture fillings,” says Kimberly Harms, DDS, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association.

Your dentist might call this bruxism, and it affects millions of adults. It can happen during the day or while you sleep.

A few things may cause it:

Stress and anxiety: They can trigger it or make it worse.

Teeth alignment: The way they line up may cause grinding.

Medicines: Some antidepressants can lead to it.

Sleep apnea: Treat the apnea, and the grinding may end.

Awareness is your first line of defense against grinding and clenching.

“I know from personal experience that you can grind your teeth without even realizing it,” Harms says.

If you notice yourself doing it, rub your tongue behind your front teeth, or place the tip between your teeth.

Tell your doctor and dentist if you have:

  • Headaches
  • Facial or jaw pain
  • Tightness
  • Soreness

If stress is the cause, do some relaxing activities, like:

  • Exercise.
  • Spend time with friends.
  • Take a few slow, deep breaths.

If you grind your teeth at night, your dentist may recommend a mouth guard. Your doctor may also prescribe a muscle relaxer. He may want to keep track of your sleep to make sure you don’t have a sleep disorder.

Chipped or Broken Teeth

Those problems can come from heavy force or pressure, says Eugene Antenucci, DDS, a clinical assistant professor at the New York University College of Dentistry.

It can happen when you bite down on a hard food or object, like a piece of crusty bread, ice, or pens.

Impact from sports or accidents can also damage your teeth. Sports injuries account for up to 39% of dental injuries in children.

How to Safeguard Your Smile

Don’t bite down on hard foods, like ice and hard candies. Instead of trying to open that package or bottle with your mouth, grab an opener or pair of scissors.

A cavity or filling can weaken your tooth and make it more likely to chip or break. So it’s important to see your dentist for a checkup twice a year.

If you play a contact sport, ask your dentist to fit you for a mouth guard. Athletes who don’t wear them are nearly twice as likely to have a mouth or tooth injury.

Acid and Tooth Enamel Erosion

You may remember from high school chemistry class that acids can eat away at surfaces. This holds true for tooth enamel. Here are some ways you’re exposing your mouth to acid:

Acidic foods and drinks: Citrus fruits can wear down enamel. Sodas, lemonade, and sports and energy drinks are the most harmful beverages.

Sugar: Bacteria on your teeth feed on sugar. They make harmful acids and cause cavities.

Acid reflux: It brings stomach acids up into your esophagus and mouth.

Frequent vomiting: Conditions that cause this, like alcoholism and bulimia, expose your teeth to stomach acid too often.

What You Can Do

Cut down on sugary and acidic drinks and snacks during the day. When you have them regularly, “this exposes your teeth to acid for a longer period of time, which wears down the enamel,” says Sara Hahn, DMD, an assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco’s School of Dentistry.

And “each time you have something acidic or sugary, rinse your mouth with some water,” Hahn says. You can also chew a piece of sugarless gum, which boosts your saliva flow.

Your saliva contains minerals like calcium and phosphate that strengthen tooth enamel.

If you have acid reflux or GERD, alcoholism, or bulimia, see your doctor for treatment or medication.

Don’t forget to brush your teeth for 2 minutes, twice a day, with a fluoride toothpaste. A mouth rinse with fluoride will also help.

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