Tooth enamel covers each of your teeth and protects them from damage. When dentists talk about tooth decay, they're usually talking about erosion of this enamel. It's important to understand exactly what enamel does and how to properly handle it so that you can take good care of your teeth and prevent problems.
Tooth enamel is a hard substance found in the shell of each of your teeth and is the part of the tooth that’s visible when you look in your mouth. Enamel is considered the hardest substance in the human body. It’s even harder than your bones; however, it can dissolve or decay when exposed to acid and a build-up of bacteria.
Enamel's primary purpose is to protect your teeth from damage. When you chew, you risk damage to your teeth because you have to grind your food. In most cases, your enamel is hard enough to prevent teeth from being damaged while you're eating. In addition, the nerves in your teeth are sensitive to temperature; hot or cold foods could cause them pain. The enamel insulates the rest of the tooth so that you don't feel discomfort when you eat or drink something that’s particularly hot or cold.
Although enamel is a hard, protective surface, it can crack or chip fairly easily. If food gets stuck between your teeth or a food substance is particularly hard, the enamel can break. If this happens, it won't be able to protect your teeth adequately. You may become aware that the enamel has cracked if you feel pain while eating, especially if you’re eating something hot, cold, or sugary.
If your enamel begins to decay, your dentist may recommend a variety of procedures, depending on the degree of enamel loss. It's important to go to the dentist as soon as possible when you experience tooth pain, as well as get regular checkups so that you can stop enamel problems before they get more serious.
Most dentists use artificial products to replace lost enamel. They may fill cavities with a filler solution that includes gold, silver, mercury, or plastic. They also may build an artificial crown around your tooth if you have an advanced case of tooth decay. Most dentists don't attempt to restore or regrow enamel, as these kinds of treatments are experimental and have not yet been proven to work. However, you can try alternative treatments at home such as brushing with sea salt to reduce pain and sensitivity in your teeth.
Enamel is surprisingly susceptible to decay despite its hardness. There are certain foods that you should avoid whenever possible in order to protect your enamel.
Most dentists advise against drinking a lot of soda – and this includes diet. This is because both the sugar and acid can dissolve enamel. Citrus-flavored sodas have higher acid levels than others and are therefore more risky to drink. Sports drinks and energy drinks may also contain high levels of acid, so you should avoid these as much as possible, too.
You should also be careful when drinking juice or eating citrus fruit because these foods contain high levels of acid. Unlike soda, however, fruit juice and citrus fruits have health benefits, so you don't want to cut them out altogether. Instead, eat these foods in moderation and alongside other foods that don't contain acid in order to neutralize their effects. Surprisingly, vinegar also contributes to enamel decay because of its acidic qualities. Be careful when putting a vinegar-based dressing on your salad or when eating potato chips and other products that have a high vinegar content.
Finally, you should avoid candy whenever possible. Most candy contains high levels of sugar, which increases the risk of enamel decay.
You might not notice enamel erosion at first because the differences in your teeth are subtle. However, as you lose more enamel, you'll begin having additional symptoms.
If your teeth hurt or throb when you eat something hot or cold, you probably are experiencing some enamel loss. This problem gets worse over time. At first, you might feel a twinge of pain for a second, while later on your teeth will hurt for a while. If you're avoiding certain foods because you know they will cause tooth pain, see your dentist.
As your enamel erosion progresses, your teeth may appear yellow or discolored even though you're brushing them. This is because the enamel contributes to your teeth's white appearance. As the enamel erodes, it exposes more dentin, which is yellow. Your teeth may also appear more round in shape than usual and in some cases may appear unusually shiny. As the erosion progresses past this point, your teeth will appear to be chipped or rough around the edges and you may see indentations forming on your teeth.
Your dentist will examine your teeth for erosion and will fill any cavities or create artificial crowns for severely eroded teeth. If your gums are also infected, your dentist may send you to an oral surgeon to have a root canal or to remove the tooth and replace it with a false one.
The enamel around your teeth is very important because it protects teeth from damage and allows you to eat foods without hurting your teeth. As long as you take good care of your enamel, you’re teeth will continue to be protected for years to come.
Last Updated February 2014
* This information is for general educational purposes only. The information presented is not a guarantee or representation that the procedures are covered under a Humana Dental or Vision Plan.