Don’t Let Bad Habits Ruin Your Teeth

Habits. The smooth flow of life depends on them. You do hundreds of things by habit every day without having to think out each process as you're doing it.

Not every habit, however, is helpful. In fact, some habits can ruin your smile. Your mouth is a busy place - biting, swallowing, chewing, drinking. A bad oral habit can produce crooked, stained, chipped, or decayed teeth.

Bad habits must be recognized, dealt with, and overcome. Check this list of common abuses to discover if you or your children are routinely damaging your teeth and gums. You can correct certain problems simply by deciding to do so. Others may require professional help.

Childhood Habits

Thumb sucking. Frequent thumb (or finger) sucking after the permanent teeth begin to erupt (at about 6 or 8 years of age) can push the front teeth forward, causing an overbite. Uncorrected, this habit almost guarantees that your child will need orthodontic treatment later.

Nagging or punishing a child doesn't solve anything. Encouragement and positive motivation might. If the problem continues, your dentist may recommend a little removable plastic appliance for your child's mouth that will prevent thumb sucking.

Nursing-bottle syndrome. A baby regularly put to bed with a bottle of milk or juice probably will develop extensive decay where the nipple and teeth have prolonged contact. The mouth bacteria produce acid from the stagnant, sweet liquids. That acid devastates the teeth. If a baby must have a bottle in bed, fill it with water.

Snacking. Eating between meals – especially soft, sticky candy - presents a real problem for people susceptible to tooth decay. “If a child does snack, be sure he brushes and flosses every time. If that's not realistic (and it may not be), choose snacks that aren't sugary or starchy. Raw vegetables, nuts, cheese, and popcorn are safer alternatives.

Impact injuries. Skateboards and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) aren't habits exactly, but using them without proper protective gear is dangerous. Children who ride dangerous toys or participate in contact sports should wear a mouth guard.

Adult Habits

Biting nonfood items. Women bite thread; men bite fishline; both may bite their nails. The carpet layer holds tacks in his mouth. The secretary nibbles the end of a pen. No matter what the item, this continued biting or chewing can break the enamel, the hard outer surface of the teeth.

Once the enamel is broken, it keeps chipping. Some biting habits may wear a groove in the tooth over time. To repair the damage, a dentist has to reshape the tooth and fill it with bonding material. If the damage is severe, the tooth will need a crown. Remember, teeth were designed for biting food, not other objects.

Chewing ice. The danger of fracturing a tooth on hard, cold ice is obvious. “You are particularly at risk if the tooth has a filling,” says Dr. Richard Simonson, chairman of the Restorative Dentistry Department at the University of Tennessee School of Dentistry. “With the dramatic temperature changes, the filling expands and contracts at a different rate than the tooth. You may not only fracture the tooth; you may also decrease the life of your filling.”

Playing contact sports without a mouth guard. Coaches often require athletes to wear either an internal or external mouth guard to protect the teeth from injury caused by falling or being hit. Weekend athletes, however, tend to be careless, presuming they are not at risk. A little prevention may save untold pain and expense. If you play contact sports, have your dentist make a mouth guard for you.

Drinking coffee and tea. Coffee and tea, especially the instant kind, stain teeth. “If you're going to use these, your oral hygiene needs to be as close to perfect as possible. That means regular cleaning in the dental office, plus flossing and brushing,” explains Dr. Dunn.

Tongue thrusting. If you hold your tongue in the wrong place when you swallow, your teeth won't come together correctly. Tongue thrusting can produce a serious bite problem. You will need professional help from a speech therapist to stop the habit, and from an orthodontist to correct your bite.

Grinding or clinching teeth. You may be taking your everyday stress out on your jaw perhaps in your sleep. Grinding your teeth (called bruxism) can break or wear them down. A more serious concern, though, is what this prolonged grinding can do to your jaw.

“Tooth grinding is probably the most destructive dental habit adults can have,” suggests Dr. Robert G. Ryan, past president of the Academy of General Dentistry. Dentists now treat more temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems than ever before.

If you grind your teeth while you sleep, you may not even be aware of the problem. Look for these symptoms: pain when you chew, a tired jaw when you awake, and unexplained headaches.

Treatment may combine medication to reduce stress, a dental night guard to wear while you sleep, and dental restoration to improve the bite.

Mouth breathing. Breathing regularly through your mouth rather than through your nose will dry the saliva on teeth and gums. When this happens, you run a greater risk of tooth decay and periodontal disease. These tissues need to be bathed in saliva at all times.

“Mouth breathers have some physiological problem that keeps them from using their noses,” states Ryan. “Often removing the adenoids and tonsils will correct most of the problem.”

Sucking lemons or other citrus. People who live in citrus-growing regions frequently suck on lemons, limes, or grapefruit. The citric acid in such fruits dissolves tooth enamel. “Their teeth are very, very clean,” Dunn notes, “but the enamel just vanishes.”

The enamel makes up the hard part of the tooth, the only part designed to withstand chewing. Lose your enamel, and your teeth become weak. They break easily; they are painful; they get brown and ugly. “A 20-yearold can look 80,” Dunn says. Bulimia. The repeated vomiting that comes with this eating disorder proves particularly hard on tooth enamel. Strong hydrochloric acid from the stomach passes through the mouth, eroding the enamel. “I can begin to see damage within a couple of months,” relates Dunn, “though it will take longer to cause severe harm.” Bulimia is not just a bad habit; it represents a severe psychological disorder that requires medical and psychiatric help to overcome.

Tobacco. Dunn believes that “tobacco is the worst offender when it comes to staining the teeth. The sticky tar adheres to the teeth, coloring them and attracting other staining substances.” However, stained teeth is the least dangerous of tobacco's effects on your mouth.

Smoking or chewing tobacco can cause serious problems for mouth tissues. Both increase the chance of oral cancer and periodontal disease. Keeping a quid of tobacco tucked in the side of the mouth can cause leukoplakia, a whitish, painless lesion that doctors consider precancerous. Smokeless tobacco can destroy gum tissues and cause the gums to recede from the teeth.

Aspirin burn. Some people still believe that if they hold an aspirin against a hurting tooth or a canker sore, it will help. It doesn't. Instead, it produces a problem that hurts worse than the original one. Aspirin burns the tissue, causing a temporary lesion.

Cheek chewing. Chewing on the inside of the cheek or on the tongue can harm mouth tissue and alter jaw alignment.

A warm smile that reveals healthy, clean, well-cared-for teeth is one of your greatest assets. Don't let a bad habit spoil your smile or cost you hard-earned money for repairs.

Health | Dental

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