Habits that Harm Your Teeth and How to Avoid Them

Profile of a woman with long hair drinking from a straw

One-third of adults in the United States are missing at least one tooth. Twenty percent of people over 65 are missing all their teeth. Though many factors go into long-term dental health, your habits certainly play a role. Here are five habits that can lead to significant dental problems.

Using Tobacco

Using tobacco products is one of the worst habits for your health and teeth. In addition to well-publicized health risks, regular tobacco users account for nearly 90 percent of all people diagnosed with cancers of the lips, mouth, and throat. Tobacco use is also a contributing factor in the development of gum disease, as it weakens your mouth’s ability to heal from gingivitis.

The chemicals inhaled while smoking cigarettes create a buildup of tartar and plaque on your teeth, causing tooth decay. More than 40 percent of adults who smoke cigarettes have untreated cavities. Smoking also leads to significant tooth discoloration that is hard to remove. The nicotine in cigarettes becomes yellow when it combines with oxygen, and it quickly absorbs into the pores of the teeth to cause staining. The brown tar and tobacco that comprise the contents of the cigarette do the same.

Chewing tobacco, snuff, and unprocessed tobacco leaves contain particles that are abrasive to teeth, so they wear down faster and become more susceptible to decay. Smokeless tobacco also increases tooth sensitivity to temperature and pressure, making eating and drinking unpleasant. These products also cause tooth staining.

Quitting or even reducing tobacco use can benefit your oral health. You should inform your healthcare providers, including your orthodontist, about any tobacco use. They can suggest helpful smoking cessation products, such as nicotine gum patches, and possibly prescribe medication to curb cravings. They may also have information about smoking cessation support groups in your area.

Consuming Sugary Drinks & Treats

Overconsumption of added sugars in sweets, drinks, and processed foods is a leading cause of obesity and is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. So it is not surprising that sugar also has adverse effects on your dental health. Sugar settles into all the crevices of your teeth, feeding bacteria that increase the acidity in your mouth. When the pH level drops below normal, that acid begins to dissolve and destroy tooth enamel. This erosion causes cavities to form, which can lead to decay.

Unfortunately, sugar is physically addictive, as it produces the feel-good chemical serotonin and endorphins. If you are overconsuming sugar, you will likely experience some unpleasant effects as you reduce it, including depressed mood, increased stress, and significant cravings. The good news is that the adverse side effects of adopting a healthier diet are temporary, and the benefit to your physical and dental health will outlast the discomfort.

If you aren’t quitting sugar altogether, it is important to rinse after consuming sweet foods and beverages to get as much off your teeth and out of your mouth as possible until you can brush.

Grinding & Clenching

Grinding and clenching is probably the most challenging habit to break, as most people do it unconsciously. Many people grind/clench without even realizing it, both when awake and sleeping. Because clenching and grinding exert enormous pressure on your jawbones (your facial muscles can exert up to 600 pounds of force per square inch), these habits can lead to pain anywhere from mild to severe. In some cases, it can even damage or break the exposed portion of a tooth, or crack the tooth’s root, which usually requires an extraction.

Treatment for grinding and clenching can include a soft-food diet (similar to the diet of those wearing braces), anti-inflammatory medications, and topical treatments that apply heat or cold. While sleeping, wearing a nightguard over the teeth can prevent damage to your teeth. In some cases, a misalignment or malocclusion could be contributing to this habit, in which case you will benefit from orthodontic correction.

Brushing Too Hard

Brushing is an essential component of good oral health. But using a toothbrush with bristles that are too firm or brushing too aggressively can be counterproductive. Persistent scrubbing erodes your enamel, increasing your susceptibility to cavities.

Over-brushing can also irritate your gums and even cause them to recede over time. It also increases your teeth’s sensitivity, especially to hot and cold foods or beverages. The American Dental Association recommends using a soft-bristled toothbrush or an electric toothbrush, which can help to reduce wear to the teeth. However, don’t substitute extra pressure for the bristle change. Exerting too much force with a softer brush can also wear down the teeth and gums.

Chewing/Biting Things that Aren’t Foods

Chewing and biting non-food items is another nervous habit that you may not even be aware you’re doing. Your teeth are not designed for chewing on pencils, fingernails, or even ice. They are also not meant to remove clothing tags or open packages. Chewing on non-foods can put pressure on the teeth that chip or crack them. It also can irritate the gums and mucous membranes, leading to mouth and jaw pain. In addition, bacteria potentially present on the objects you chew can infect your mouth and gums. And even if you don’t suffer an immediate consequence of this habit, it can create long-term problems, as habitual chewing and gnawing can cause the teeth to shift out of alignment.

How you can modify the habit depends on the issue you are having. If you’re a nail-biter, you can purchase bitter-tasting nail polishes explicitly designed for this issue. Popsicles are an excellent alternative for ice-chewing. It’s good to forgo ice in your drinks while breaking the habit. Using a straw can help with this as well. If you’re prone to chewing on pens and pencils, a mouth-healthy alternative on hand, such as sugar-free gum.

Want to engage in better habits for your dental health? Start by contacting us today to schedule a consultation with one of our board-certified orthodontists.


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