It's that scary time of year — sugar season. You might know it as Halloween, when Americans are predicted to buy $2.7 billion worth of candy, according to the National Retail Federation. However, dentists and wary parents know the holiday is the unofficial launch of a sweets bacchanal that starts with trick-or-treat candy, and continues with Thanksgiving pie, Christmas cookies, Valentine's chocolates and Easter jelly beans, and ends with an expensive trip to the dentist.
Though cavities are preventable, 91% of adults from 20 to 64 years old have had tooth decay, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even so, there are many creative ways to wreck your teeth with food and bad habits.
Here are some of the worst:
Lollipops, mints and even sugary cough drops present a double-dose of potential trouble. Unlike chocolate that melts quickly and may be fairly low in sugar, hard candy provides a long feast for mouth bacteria that produce enamel-weakening acids as they digest sugars. Chomp on the sweet treats and you also risk cracking your teeth.
"At one time, we thought raisins [and dried fruit] were a healthy snack, because they're a natural food. But raisins are concentrated sugar and they stick to the grooves of your teeth. That's a bad combination," said Dr. Santos Cortez, a pediatric dentist in Long Beach. "For that reason, we'd like to have children eat natural snacks like apples, carrots or fresh fruit." The crunch of those watery foods also helps clean the tooth surface while you chew, he said.
Like dried fruits, the starch in pretzels and chips turns into sugar, and worse, can form a kind of adhesive paste that can stay on your teeth for hours if you don't brush it off, Cortez said. Other sticky "healthy" foods can include bagels, dry breakfast cereal and, yep, gummy vitamins.
They're sweet, tart, sour, bitter and a doubly damaging scourge of oral health. Your mouth's sugar-eating bacteria produce acid, while the flavoring douses your teeth with more acid. The combination erodes enamel over time, creating craters on teeth. "Some of the sour candy is at least twice to three times as acid as natural water or milk," said Cortez.
So you're eating healthy now, snacking on organic seaweed or convenient pre-sliced apples. Then you rip open the packages with your teeth, and bingo! You've won a trip to the dentist to patch a cracked incisor or repair your sliced gums. "I once had a patient walk in who looked like he was chewing a sleeping bag. He'd gotten a permanent tooth caught in the zipper pull. I had to drill out part of the zipper to free it," said Cortez. "We see it all."
On the scale of self-harming nervous habits, maybe biting your nails isn't the worst, but the habit can flatten the edges of your front teeth. "Over time, your teeth can wear faster and nail biting can create cracks on the enamel of your teeth until they become hypersensitive," said Cortez. The biting action also puts your jaw in an unnatural position that can stress your joints.
The fancy word for clenching or grinding your teeth is bruxism. The prolonged pressure and friction can cause pain in your teeth, but also your ears and jaw. Among adults, the cause is typically stress, though bruxism is incredibly common among kids too. "About nine out of 10 children grind their teeth. It's usually nocturnal," said Cortez. "When they transition from baby to permanent teeth, it usually doesn't happen as much." Dentists can prescribe a guard or splint to wear at night. Then your grinding destroys the plastic and not your teeth.
Yeah, OK, it's part of body modification. Fine. But having a piece of metal in your mouth means it can hit your teeth — every time you talk, swallow or fiddle with it. Over time, gum tissue can separate from the teeth, and enamel can crack. "Teeth are 97% mineral, like a crystal. Pounding a piece of metal against crystal creates crazing — lines along your teeth, like a break in a glass or a plate," said Cortez. What comes next can be periodontal disease and broken teeth, or worse, an infection.
Just don't. Now you know that teeth are like crystals and can shatter. And because you are like every other person in America, you've grown up on sugar in everything and have either expensive dental work or weakened enamel in your mouth. Crunch that ice at your peril.