It is safe to say that almost everyone knows that sodas and other sugary drinks are bad for your teeth. Did you know that alcohol is bad for your teeth, too?
Alcohol Increases Cavity Risk
Alcohol increases your risk for cavities in a few different ways. The risk level is dependent on both your frequency and quantity of alcohol intake. So the more alcohol you drink, and the more often you drink it, the more likely you are to get new cavities.
Fuel for Cavity-Causing Bacteria
Most alcoholic beverages contain carbohydrates (or sugars). Many hard liquors do not, so if you drink it without any type of mixer, this may not apply to you. But beer, wine, and mixed drinks contain sugars. Beer and wine contain sugars naturally. When you mix a hard liquor with anything besides water, you usually add sugars to it as well. Many people mix liquor with sodas or fruit juices, which are very high in sugar.
Simple carbohydrates (or sugars) are the food source or fuel for the bacteria that cause cavities. These bacteria, called Streptococcus mutans, are present in the mouth, and they “eat” simple carbs. They live within dental plaque that sticks to the surface of teeth. When they digest these carbs, their by-product (excrement) is acid. Acid is the only thing that can weaken, soften, and slowly dissolve away tooth enamel. Acid is the bacteria’s mechanism of action. When you feed the bacteria more carbs, they produce more acid, which leads to more cavities.
All alcoholic drinks are acidic. Alcohol itself has a low pH, and so do the most common mixers. As explained in the previous section, acid is the actual destroyer of tooth enamel in the cavity process. Enamel is very hard and very strong. Its threshold for damage from acid is the pH level of 5.5. Ideally, a healthy mouth has good salivary flow and a pH level that is slightly basic or above neutral (>7.0). In that case, the saliva will neutralize the acid and protect the teeth.
The problem with alcohol and every other acidic drink is that they bring down the overall pH level in the mouth to an acidic range. This means that the oral environment is not fighting acid attacks, and it could mean that it is actually contributing to the weakening of enamel. An acidic mouth is an environment in which it is easier for bacteria to destroy tooth enamel. Drinking acidic beverages, like alcohol, increases your risk for cavities.
A dry mouth is not a healthy mouth. We need saliva to lubricate the soft tissues inside the mouth, fight the acid attacks of bacteria, and begin the digestion process. Because heavy alcohol intake leads to dehydration, dry mouth is a common side effect. When dry mouth becomes a consistent problem, the health of the inside of your mouth steadily declines.
Dry mouth causes dental plaque to have a stickier consistency that is more difficult to remove from the teeth. The lack of saliva also leads to a consistent overall acidic pH in the mouth. People with a severely dry mouth tend to develop new cavities on the side of the teeth facing the lips and cheeks and near the gumline. There is a very specific appearance to these cavities, so don’t be surprised if your dentist “guesses” that your mouth is very dry.
Length of Time
Another problem that is relatively specific to alcohol intake is the increased risk of cavities due to the length of time you expose your teeth to the alcohol. For many people, having an alcoholic beverage is a leisurely activity. You sit and visit with loved ones while slowly sipping a beer or glass of wine. This increases the length of time you expose your teeth to the sugars and acidic pH of alcoholic drinks.
Cavities do not happen immediately. It takes time for bacteria to eat the sugar and produce the acid, and then it takes time for the acid to soften the enamel. The more time you give the bacteria with sugar and acid, the more likely they are to cause cavities.
Safest Way to Enjoy Alcoholic Beverages
So how can you enjoy your glass of wine without worrying about your teeth? There are several ways you can fight the increased risk of cavities.
- Reduce the bacteria in your mouth
The bad, cavity-causing bacteria live in sticky dental plaque. You can remove them by cleaning your teeth well with great oral hygiene at home and consistent visits to your dental hygienist for professional teeth cleanings. Less bacteria = less cavities.
- Neutralize your mouth
We described how an acidic pH in your mouth increases your cavity risk. You can neutralize your mouth after enjoying an acidic drink by drinking plain (non-sparkling) water or chewing sugar-free gum. Even better, you can neutralize your mouth while enjoying an acidic drink by drinking it with a meal. When you chew food, the body naturally produces more saliva. That saliva will counteract the acids in your beverage!
- Watch your alcohol intake
Chronic dry mouth can result from long-term alcohol abuse. If you feel that dry mouth has become a consistent problem for you, you may need to cut back on your alcohol intake for a while in order to return to a normal saliva flow. By reducing your alcohol intake, you can fight dry mouth.
- When sipping, add water and snacks
We know that it’s nice to sip on a drink for a while. In order to fight the increased risk of cavities, keep a glass of water and some snacks handy while you sip. By periodically snacking drinking water, you can stimulate saliva and bring the pH in your mouth back to neutral. Preferably, the snacks will be low-carb to counteract the carbohydrates in your drink. Think cheese and nuts!
More Questions about Alcohol and its Effects on Your Teeth?
Call your nearest Premier Dental of Ohio location today to schedule a consultation with one of our outstanding dentists. We can answer all of your questions about how alcohol affects the teeth, assess your personal level of cavity risk, and recommend preventive options to keep your teeth as healthy as possible!