From childhood we’ve been told that sweet treats and soft drinks are rotting our teeth. While the warning might sound like a mere scare tactic, it’s true; sugar really is one of the main culprits behind tooth decay. So, sugar is bad for our teeth — this we know for certain. But how does sugar rot your teeth? Below, we take a look at why and how sugar causes tooth decay and break down whether or not sugar-free products are actually ‘tooth-friendly’.
Why Does Sugar Rot Teeth?
Sugary foods and beverages are directly linked to tooth decay, but it isn’t exactly the sugar itself that causes the rotting. Rather, it’s what happens after you consume sugar that causes your teeth to erode.
Sugar rots our teeth because of the way it interacts with the bacteria in our mouths.
We’ll unpack this in detail below.
How Does Sugar Rot Your Teeth?
Sugar is essentially the agent that kickstarts the tooth decay process.
Tooth rotting occurs in stages — you won’t wake up to find your teeth falling out after one night of sipping on soft drink.
However, tooth decay can progress rapidly if you continue to consume sugar regularly and don’t treat the decay.
Stage 1: Sugar, Bacteria, and Plaque
We all have bacteria living in our mouths.
This bacteria creates a film over our teeth, which is called dental plaque.
The sugar and carbohydrates we consume is essentially fuel for that bacteria; the bacteria feeds on it for energy.
When the bacteria feed on these sugars, an acidic substance is produced. The acid wears away at our tooth enamel, which is the hard, mineral-rich tissue that lines the outer layer of the tooth. This process is called demineralisation.
When demineralisation occurs, a white spot appears on the surface of the tooth. This is usually the first noticeable sign of tooth decay.
At this stage, treatment is quick and effective. Your dentist will give your teeth a clean and remove plaque from the gum lining.
They might also smooth the surface roots of the teeth to prevent plaque from building up again. This is known as root planing and scaling.
Stage 2: Cavities
If the initial signs of demineralisation go untreated, the enamel will continue to be broken down by the bacteria and acid.
The white spot on your tooth will eventually turn brown and form a cavity.
Cavities begin like tiny pin-prick holes on the teeth, but open up into much larger holes inside the tooth.
It’s very important to have cavities seen to promptly. At this stage, you can still be treated with minimally-invasive techniques.
Depending on the state of your cavity, you will be treated with a direct or indirect restorations.
Direct restorations are otherwise known as fillings and are completed in a single appointment. Your dentist will numb the area, remove the decayed section of the tooth and fill the cavity with amalgam, resin, or acrylic.
An indirect restoration will be necessary if you have a deeper cavity. Indirect restorations include inlays, onlays, veneers, bridges, and crowns made from ceramic or composite resin. These are completed over a few appointments.
Stage 3: Damage to the Dentin
When you have a cavity, the dentin in your tooth becomes exposed to bacteria.
The dentin is the bone-like tissue that sits under the tooth enamel. It’s softer than the enamel, so it wears down much quicker when exposed to bacteria and acid.
Once the bacteria reaches the dentin, your tooth decay will begin to progress rapidly.
The dentin leads to the nerves within the tooth, so you’ll know when the dentin has been damaged because you’ll begin to feel sensitivity in your tooth.
Tooth sensitivity is often triggered by sugary, cold, or hot food and drinks.
At this stage, you may still be treated with a filling or indirect restoration. Your dentist may also prescribe an antibiotic pill, gel, or mouthwash to clear out the bacteria and prevent infection.
Stage 4: Pulp Damage
If you don’t have your cavities seen to, the bacteria in your mouth will eventually reach the pulp.
The pulp is the innermost part of the tooth that contains the blood vessels and nerve endings that give our teeth sensation and keep them healthy.
When the dentin breaks down, the pulp becomes exposed.
As bacteria, acid, and plaque enter the pulp, it becomes irritated and begins to swell. The surrounding tissues are not equipped with enough space to accommodate the swelling, which puts pressure on the nerves.
This results in tooth pain.
Find out about How to Fix Rotting Teeth
Depending on the state of the pulp, your dentist may still be able to clear the infection and restore the tooth.
Traditional and All on 4 implants are made from acrylic or porcelain.
Stage 5: Gum Disease and Rotten Teeth
When the pulp has been exposed to bacteria, you are at risk of developing gum disease.
Gum disease occurs when the plaque build-up reaches the pulp and causes the area to become irritated and infected.
Gingivitis is the milder form of gum disease. It can cause redness, swelling, bleeding, sore gums, and pimple-like gingival abscesses.
If left untreated, gingivitis progresses into periodontal disease, which is a more severe form of gum disease. Symptoms include pain, receding gums, blood or pus between the gums, and periodontal abscesses.
Gum disease can also cause tooth loosening and eventually bone and tooth loss.
You may notice your teeth turning yellow, brown, then black. At this point, they will resemble small black stumps.
Your teeth may become wobbly and eventually fall out. Tooth loss is considered the final, most severe stage of tooth rotting.
If the bacteria has penetrated deep into the gum, your may experience bone loss in your jaw bone. Missing teeth can worsen bone loss, as the bone weakens without teeth to support.
When you’re missing teeth, it’s common for the surrounding teeth to collapse into the empty gum area which will change your bite. This can cause difficulty eating and severe jaw pain.
Furthermore, at this advanced stage of tooth decay, the infection in your gums can travel throughout the body and cause a range of health issues.
If you’re suffering with stage 5 tooth rotting, you may require bone or tissue grafting in addition to tooth extraction and implants. Grafting involves taking tissue or bone from somewhere on your body and attaching it to the damaged area.
Your dentist may also need to cut into the gum to remove plaque and infection from below the gum line.
How Fast Does Sugar Rot Your Teeth?
It takes 20 minutes for the sugar you consume to be cleared from your mouth.
During these 20 minutes, the bacteria in your mouth are actively converting those sugars into that acidic substance we mentioned earlier.
Then, after 20 minutes, the silva in your mouth works to neutralise the acid and stop it from further eroding the tooth enamel. However, our saliva can only do so much.
A single meal, snack, or beverage consumed in one sitting is essentially one ‘acid attack’ on your teeth. Your teeth recover pretty well from this and your saliva can effectively neutralise the acid.
However, if you eat sugary snacks at several points during the day or sip on a sugary beverage over many hours, your mouth is continually exposed to the effects of sugar and bacteria. This means demineralisation continues to occur and rotting progresses.
This is what eventually leads to tooth decay.
In other words, the more often you consume sugary food and drink, the more chances the sugars have to chip away at your teeth.
So, consuming three hearty meals a day and finishing a beverage in one sitting is better for your teeth. Avoid eating multiple small meals and sipping on a drink for hours at a time.
This is why the phrase ‘sip all decay, risk decay’ is popular among dentists.
Do Sugar-Free Drinks and Foods Rot Your Teeth?
Given sugar is so harmful for our teeth, it would seem sugar-free drinks and foods are the solution.
However, sugar-free drinks and foods aren’t much better for us and can also rot our teeth.
These products have the potential to erode our dental enamel because they contain high levels of citric acid (ingredient 330) and phosphoric acid (intedient 338).
For example. sugar-free lollies — many of which even have ‘safe for teeth’ on their packaging — may not contain sucrose, but they do contain citric and other food acids. These ingredients give the sweets their tangy and fruity flavour. These ingredients also wreak havoc on our teeth.
A study from the University of Michigan compared the effects of regular soft drink and diet (sugar-free) soft drink on tooth enamel. After 14 days of exposure to normal Coca Cola, 2.8mg/cm² had dissolved, while diet Coca Cola dissolved over 3mg/cm².
Products containing natural sugars can also be damaging.
The Eastman Institute for Oral Health also found drinking orange juice decreased tooth enamel hardness by 84%. According to Tufts Now, acid in lemon and lime juice is almost as corrosive as battery acid.
So, what can you do to avoid tooth decay?
How to Avoid Tooth Decay
There are a number of things you can do to avoid tooth decay and prevent current decay from progressing.
There’s no need to eliminate all sugars from your diet. Avoiding natural sugars would mean cutting out certain fruits and other foods that are essential to a well-balanced diet.
As with everything, moderation is key.
Do limit your intake of artificially sweetened products where possible, as these only serve to harm your dental and overall health.
Tooth decay can also be prevented by:
- Drinking more water – Water, preferably fluoridated, helps to reduce tooth decay. Tap water is the most tooth-friendly beverage, followed by black tea and coffee. Milk is also safe option for your teeth because it helps the saliva rebalance its pH levels.
- Drinking quickly and consuming sugars in one sitting – As mentioned, one meal, snack or drink is equivalent to one acid attack on the teeth. Therefore, it’s best to avoid sipping on sugary drinks all day or eating numerous sugary snacks throughout the day. Try to consume your beverage or meal in one sitting. This way, your saliva has a better chance at neutralising the pH levels in the mouth.
- Using a straw — Using a straw helps to keep the harmful acids and sugars away from teeth.
- Rinsing your mouth regularly — Rinse your mouth with water after eating sugary foods. This will help to wash away any lingering sugars and prevent them from attacking your teeth.
- Waiting to brush your teeth – After you eat a sugary meal or consume a sugary beverage, wait 30 minutes to 1 hour before your brush your teeth. Brushing your teeth straight afterwards can actually remove the tooth layer that has been softened from the recent acid attack.
- Avoid acidic drinks before bed — Consuming acidic drinks right before bed means the sugars will attack your teeth overnight.
- Attend biannual dentist check ups — Keep up to date with your dental check ups. Your dentist will be able to catch the early signs of tooth decay and stop it from progressing.
Treat Your Tooth Decay
Now that you know how and why sugar rots your teeth, you can take the necessary steps to prevent further decay from occuring.
The best thing you can do for your oral health is head in for a dental check-up.
At Kew Dentistry, our expert dentists use the latest techniques and technologies to resolve rotting teeth in children and adults.
Dental procedures can be a source of anxiety, so we’re commited to making the experience as comfortable as possible for you.
We’ll discuss your needs and concerns with you and work out the best course of action to restore your teeth to health.
Request an appointment online today.