What is tooth erosion and what role do sports drinks, gels and bars play?

What is tooth erosion and what role do sports drinks, gels and bars play?

As an oral health therapist, I see cases of dental erosion, at various levels of advancement, every day. The earlier we can identify risks or damage and provide advice on preventing enamel erosion, the better the long-term outcomes.

Tooth erosion is defined as damage caused to a tooth by chemicals that does not involve bacteria (completely different from tooth decay). Tooth erosion is one of the most common causes of tooth damage seen in clinical practice every day.

What does tooth erosion look like?

Erosion lesions have very distinct appearances –

  • Crater like or hollowed out appearance on the biting surfaces of teeth
  • Scooped appearance on the outer sides of the teeth,
  • Thin, transparent enamel on surfaces.
  • The underlying layer of the tooth, the dentine, is often visible.

They can affect a group or cluster of teeth in one section of the mouth or, in more severe cases, all the teeth may be damaged.
Eroded teeth can be extremely sensitive and can cause chronic pain. The enamel works as a barrier between the nerve core of the tooth and the outside world. Once it is gone, it cannot be replaced.

What causes tooth erosion?

Acids are the main culprits. Damaging acids can be introduced into the mouth in 2 ways – internally or externally.
Internal acids are those that come from inside the body. For example –

  • Gastro-intestinal reflux
  • Sleep apnea
  • Chronic morning sickness
  • Bulimia

External acids are those we bring into the mouth. For example –

  • acidic foods eg citrus fruits
  • acidic drinks eg juice, soft drinks, wine, cordials
  • sucking acidic vitamins eg vitamin C
  • certain medications eg asthma puffers
  • sports drinks, gels & bars

Does Saliva help protect against tooth erosion?

Saliva works in a number of ways:

  • forming a protective coating over the teeth and soft tissues
  • Diluting acids in the mouth,
  • Buffering acids in the mouth from a damaging pH level

If the acidic challenge is too great and occurs for an extended period of time, saliva loses its ability to protect the enamel adequately. This is when damage occurs.

Tooth Erosion & sports drinks, gels and bars

Australians of all ages love sport and fitness, so it is not hard to see how popular sports drinks, gels and bars have become significant contributors in causing dental erosion.
These products generally have high sugar content and are acidic.
When such products come into contact with tooth enamel, it begins to soften and gradually dissolves away. In this softened state, enamel is also vulnerable to further wear from behaviors such as tooth clenching or grinding, commonly associated with high intensity sport and fitness activities.
Sports and fitness activities also cause dehydration. Dehydration means a low flow of saliva. When saliva flow is low, it is not able to perform its protective responsibilities.
If highly acidic products are introduced into the mouth, while dehydrated, the risk of damage to the teeth is increased exponentially.
And this is generally how and when these products are used! To rehydrate.

To help prevent erosion …

  • Drink lots of water while exercising. Water will rehydrate effectively and allow saliva to
    perform as it should.
  • Regular visits to your oral health professional is essential to ensure early diagnosis of problems
    and get personalised advise on preventive products and strategies.


As featured in Be.Magazine, August 2014 issue

Jo Purssey
Jo Purssey

Founding Member Oral Health Advisory Panel (OHAP) and Oral Health Therapist

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