Before Chinese New Year, the National Dental Centre Singapore (NDCS) of Singapore sees an influx of patients who want to clean and whiten their teeth. After the celebrations, patients make unscheduled visits for different reasons – fractured or dislodged fillings, toothache, tooth sensitivity and cracked or fractured teeth.
Many of these complaints are linked to snacking on festive goodies such as sticky, sugary foods, hard candies and nuts, consuming litres of carbonated soft drinks and cracking heaps of melon seeds with the teeth.
But, can just a few days of eating with abandon do so much harm?
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Diet and decay
Dr Sim explained that traditional snacks, such as bak kwa, niangao (sticky rice cake), pineapple tarts, love letters, sweets, chocolates and cakes, contain fermentable carbohydrates which the bacteria in plaque metabolise into acids. These acids “leach” minerals from the teeth, causing caries, disease or tooth decay.
With frequent snacking between meals – a common practice during Chinese New Year – acid levels in the mouth remain high and the “leaching” continues. In fact, frequent snacking can possibly cause more damage to the teeth than eating a greater amount, but less often.
“Sticky foods such as niangao, pineapple tarts, chocolates and toffee adhere well to tooth surfaces, and are more difficult for saliva to wash away. Saliva rebalances the pH level in the mouth, slows down mineral loss from the teeth and allows repair to take place. Sufficient time must be given for the pH level in your mouth to return to normal,” said Dr Sim.
Orange juice (with a colour that represents wealth), and soft drinks are typically served in many homes. Sugar-laden and acidic, they are far from tooth-friendly.
“Drinking such beverages frequently lowers the pH level in the mouth and also causes minerals to ‘leach’ from the teeth. They can also erode the outer enamel of teeth, exposing the softer inner dentine layer which is more sensitive. In fact, sipping a soft drink over an extended period of time puts you at a higher risk of caries than finishing it within 10 minutes,” said Dr Sim.
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The other concern is the cracking of the teeth’s enamel. “When we chew on sugary, sticky and hard foods like candy, nuts and melon seeds, there is a chewing force exerted by our teeth. This force can be so great that it causes micro cracks to develop in the enamel structure,” said Dr Sim.
Tooth decay and gum disease can be prevented through good oral hygiene, reducing the frequency of snacking as well as cutting down on sugar-rich foods and drinks.
Saliva is the body’s natural protective and defensive mechanism regulating the pH level in the mouth. Increasing saliva flow in the mouth and drinking sufficient water can help optimise saliva’s protective mechanism.
“Saliva is essential for oral and pharyngeal health. It lubricates the mouth, and helps swallowing, digestion, speech and taste. It also protects against plaque acids, and its anti-bacterial properties and enzymes aid in digestion. It contains minerals and other compounds, which promote remineralisation of the teeth. Good saliva flow helps clear food particles from the mouth too. But smoking, alcohol and recreational drugs may affect the quantity and quality of saliva,” said Dr Sim.
Keeping hydrated is also important. Dr Sim said that the lack of water decreases saliva flow and pH and, if prolonged, this can accelerate tooth erosion and decay.
Heavy drinkers of alcohol and caffeine should increase their water intake to restore their fluid balance.
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Sugar-free chewing gum and artificial sweeteners are also tooth-friendly. Normal oral pH can be achieved by just chewing gum for 20 minutes. Sweeteners, too, cannot be turned into acids by bacteria in the mouth.
So, for a great start to the year, it would be vital to spring-clean not only your home, but also your mouth.
“We highly recommend that people visit a dentist prior to Chinese New Year to make sure their teeth are in good condition, and to prevent an emergency toothache during the festive period, when dentists are not easily available. The dentist can also check for existing chipped teeth or fillings that are leaking, to minimise the risk of chipping a tooth while eating. You can also ask your dentist to do simple saliva function tests to assess saliva flow, its acidity and ability to neutralise acids,” said Dr Sim.
- Limit your intake of sugary and acidic foods.
- Go easy on sugar-laden juices, coffees, teas and fizzy drinks.
- Avoid sipping acidic or sugary drinks over a long period of time. Drink through a straw to minimise contact with your teeth.
- Maintain a strict oral hygiene regime.
- Drink enough water to avoid dehydration, which will reduce saliva flow and depress the pH level in your mouth. Allow time for the pH level in your mouth to return to normal.
- Check the pH level of your saliva using a piece of pH paper, which is easily obtained from the dentist. A healthy saliva pH is mildly alkaline at 7.4.
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