The tingling pain in the throat from chronic heartburn may make you concerned about your increased risk for esophageal cancer, but a new study points to yet another health problem worth worrying about—tooth erosion.
Unfortunately, chronic heartburn (a.k.a. gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) can cause dental damage due to the acid that’s constantly washing around in your mouth—even if you’re taking antacids.
And there’s one particular type of dental damage that it’s very important to keep an eye on, as it turns out…
Researchers analyzed participants with GERD and healthy people, looking at how much tooth enamel (the outer layer) was lost over six months, and determined whether the erosion was due to normal wear-and-tear or the effects of regurgitated stomach acid.
To learn about the results, I called study author Daranee Versluis-Tantbirojn, DDS, MS, PhD, an associate professor of restorative dentistry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.
Findings: On average, compared to the control group, GERD patients had more tooth damage—and some had much more. In fact, two GERD patients had five times the damage, two had seven times the damage and one even had nine times as much. These patients had tooth surfaces with deeper “craters” and/or had thinner teeth.
The researchers were surprised to see just how much tooth erosion was measured in some patients, considering that most were taking medications to combat GERD. This means that the level of tooth damage may be even worse in patients who forgo medicating the problem, she said.
TONS OF TOOTH TIPS
Just the thought of pitted, thinning teeth is enough to turn my stomach. Aside from the fact that it’s aesthetically displeasing, tooth erosion can also lead to poor chewing ability and sensitivity to cold food and drinks (ouch!). Plus, Dr. Versluis-Tantbirojn said, people with severe damage often need expensive dental crowns or caps to restore the form and function of their choppers.
If you or someone you know has GERD, Dr. Versluis-Tantbirojn offered these tips for preventing dental damage…
- Don’t brush at the wrong time: After a reflux episode, don’t brush your teeth right away—wait at least one hour—because brushing acid-softened teeth will sweep away the softened surface, resulting in more erosion. But keep brushing as you normally would twice a day.
- Use a fluoride mouthwash: Rinsing with a fluoride mouthwash immediately after a reflux episode can enhance saliva’s ability to restore damaged tooth surfaces. Be careful not to swallow it, as over time it may be toxic to your system. (Fluoride mouthwashes are available in any drugstore, but don’t use brands containing alcohol, which can make the mouth feel like it’s burning and dry it out.)
- Use “dental cream”: Ask your dentist about obtaining a prescription dental cream containing fluoride, calcium and phosphate ions, which enhances repair of softened enamel more than saliva or fluoride mouthwash alone. (It costs about $15 to $20 for a 1.8-ounce tube, which will last about one month.) Dental cream can be used anytime after an acid reflux episode, and applying it with your finger is more effective than with a toothbrush.