Teeth Discoloration: Prevention, Causes, and Treatments

When asked what they dislike most about their smile, many adults are quick to respond about discoloration. According to statistics, the teeth whitening industry brings in a staggering $11 billion annually, showing just how much people wish to improve the brightness of their smiles. There are several methods to go about whitening your teeth, from over-the-counter products to in-office professional treatments. But what about prevention? Is there a way to prevent discoloration in the first place? To better answer this question, let’s take a look at what causes discoloration, as explained by Ronald Perry, clinical professor and director of the Gavel Center for Restorative Dental Research at Dr. Sanchez’s alma mater, the Tufts School of Dental Medicine.

There are many causes of discolored teeth, and thankfully they are mostly “extrinsic,” meaning it affect the enamel alone and can be fixed. The most common of extrinsic staining is caused by foods or beverages, like black tea, coffee, red wine, berries, beets and candies. Soy sauce, tomato sauce, and curries can cause teeth to yellow over time, as can smoking or using other tobacco products. Additionally, creating an acidic environment in your mouth, via eating acidic foods or by not consistently brushing and flossing, can make enamel more susceptible to staining.

The best way to prevent extrinsic staining is to brush your teeth shortly after eating foods that cause discoloration and to be sure to maintain a proper oral hygiene routine, consisting of brushing at least twice a day and flossing regularly. Also, make an effort to only consume tooth-staining items in moderation. When you do consume foods and beverages that might stain your teeth, there are measures you can take to minimize their effects. For example, drink tea or coffee with a little milk, and through a straw when possible. Chewing sugarless gum is another strategy to help neutralize the acids in the mouth, as is consuming high-fiber foods, like beans and spinach. Leafy greens help produce more saliva in the mouth and can “scrub” the teeth clean.

Unfortunately, some types of discoloration are not as easy to erase. “Intrinsic” discoloration occurs when it is embedded in the tooth, having formed in utero, or as the teeth developed during childhood. This can be a result from certain medications or trauma to a child’s tooth, such as a fall or sports injury. Teeth with intrinsic damage usually appear gray in color. Another discoloration situation can occur if the outer layer of enamel has worn away, for example as with excessive tooth grinding. In these situations, teeth may appear to be yellowing because the undersurface of the tooth is, in fact, more yellow. If too much damage has occurred, composite fillings, crowns, or other restorative treatments may be necessary. Finally, a calcium deficiency can cause discoloration, as can exposure to large doses of fluoride, leading to white spots on teeth.

If you are unhappy about the color of your teeth, the first step in taking care of the issue is to discuss it with your dentist. Once you’ve determined what kind of staining you’re dealing with and the cause, the appropriate remedy will be easier to identify. There are likely several options available, and together with your dentist, you can choose one and finally obtain that bright, white smile you’ve been dreaming of.

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