Your skin is designed to protect your body -- and your teeth have a protective covering, too! Tooth enamel is a thin, tough coating that covers the crown of your tooth. The hardest tissue in the human body, tooth enamel protects your teeth from everyday wear and tear, including chewing, biting and grinding. Tooth enamel also protects underlying dentin from sensitivity and the plaque bacteria that cause cavities.
Tooth enamel is the part of the tooth you see, but it's not what determines its color. While tooth enamel may appear white, it is actually translucent -- and easily stainable! But preventing tooth discoloration isn't the only reason you should practice good oral hygiene. Tooth enamel is usually the first place that a dental cavity forms. Once tooth decay penetrates the enamel, it can travel quickly through the softer layers of your tooth until it reaches the tooth's nerves, resulting in a root canal infection. Protecting your enamel against tooth decay can help it do its job of protecting your teeth!
Why So Sensitive?
Dentin, a bone-like substance that makes up the majority of your tooth, is responsible for your tooth's color and structure. So why bother with tooth enamel at all? Dentin contains tiny tubules that connect the tooth's surface to its nerves, which causes sensitivity when it comes in contact with hot or cold substances. Tooth enamel blocks irritants from entering your dentin and signaling the nerves. It's important to note that tooth enamel does not extend below the gum line and does not protect roots that are exposed from receding gums -- which is why many people who suffer from gum disease are prone to tooth sensitivity.
Coming Out of Your Shell
You need to take care of your tooth enamel -- or you risk losing it! Tooth erosion, or enamel erosion, is the wearing away of tooth enamel. Tooth erosion is usually caused by consuming acidic foods and drinks on an ongoing basis and it's a common problem among soda, wine and coffee drinkers. Enamel erosion can also result from aging, bruxism, dry mouth, acid reflux disease, bulimia or certain medications. The following symptoms could be a sign that you have tooth erosion:
Dents on the surface of your teeth, known as "cupping"
A tooth filling that appears "raised"
Patch It Up
Unfortunately, once tooth enamel is lost, it doesn't grow back. Tooth enamel isn't alive -- with no living cells to regenerate tissue, it cannot repair damage on its own. While fluoride can help strengthen enamel, your own saliva is an excellent tool for fighting enamel erosion. Saliva protects enamel by supplying it with calcium and other minerals. Saliva also neutralizes acid and helps wash away debris. But a diet high in acid content limits the production of saliva, greatly affecting your mouth's ability to protect itself.
If you already have enamel loss, your dentist may be able to repair some of the damage. Dental bonding can restore small areas of enamel loss to protect you from sensitivity. If larger areas of dentin are exposed, a dental crown may be necessary to prevent the tooth from cracking or breaking.
Solid as a Rock
Tooth enamel erosion is preventable. The following tips may help slow down the progression of enamel erosion:
- Cut back on acidic foods and drinks, such as coffee, wine and soda
- If you can't give up your acidic beverage, try drinking it through a straw to lessen contact with teeth
- Drink plenty of water to help prevent dry mouth and wash away debris
- Chew sugarless gum to help produce saliva
- Brush with a fluoride toothpaste
- Floss to remove plaque bacteria from between teeth
- Receive fluoride treatments from your dentist
Only a dentist can determine whether you suffer from enamel erosion. If you think you have tooth enamel erosion -- or you just want to keep the tooth enamel you have -- be sure to visit a dentist regularly.