How acid reflux can derail your oral health

Man holding chest, experiencing acid reflux
Acid reflux is a very common experience. Left unchecked, it can lead to dental erosion.

Acid reflux happens when stomach acids back up into the esophagus. This relatively common experience may progress to a more severe condition called GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease). Most people experience acid reflux every so often, particularly after consuming a lot of food or certain drinks, but saliva is able to restore the perfect balance in the mouth before damage is done. For those living with chronic acid reflux, stomach acids end up in the mouth throughout the day and sometimes during the night as well. If reflux symptoms are experienced more than a couple of times a week, GERD is most likely the culprit. Common symptoms can include:

  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Chest pain
  • Consistent coughing
Diagram of healthy and unhealthy stomach and esophagus
This diagram shows how stomach acids can flow back into the esophagus.

Depending on how severe the individual case is, these symptoms can vary. While it’s easy to think that the disease is simply uncomfortable and not causing longterm damage, the exact opposite is true. While the lining of the esophagus takes the hit of constant irritation (which can eventually lead to esophageal cancer), the consistent flow of acid into the mouth will begin to cause massive erosion of your enamel and damage to your gum tissue. Once enough of the enamel is eroded, cavities and gingivitis are sure to follow if the issue goes untreated.

Routine oral exams are so important for early detection of many diseases and illnesses that otherwise might not have been diagnosed until they were more advanced. The symptoms of GERD can easily be brushed off as bad digestion, and that is why it is crucial to maintain your regular dentist visits. Dentists are often the first detectors of this chronic disease, as the enamel erosion is always concentrated on the molars and the back of the teeth due to the constant contact with acid hitting these areas. This type of decay will be noticed during a routine dental exam, and steps can be taken to protect your teeth from further damage. An oral exam can be a literal lifesaver, as most diseases (including cancer) show early symptoms in the mouth.

Fortunately, if you discover that you already have GERD or are looking for ways to lower your risk, there are easy things that you can do start to do today. The ADA recommends the following steps:

  • Use extra fluoride and fortifying toothpaste
  • Minimize consumption of alcohol
  • Quit smoking
  • Stop eating 3 hours from the time you go to sleep
  • Chew sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva-production and combat dry mouth

Some foods are also notorious for causing acid reflux, so try to avoid the following trigger foods:

  • Spicy foods
  • Caffeine
  • Fattening foods
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Chocolate
  • Citrus

You don’t have to cut these foods out of your diet completely, but keeping them to a minimum will definitely make a difference. Eating smaller amounts at one time is also a great way to avoid a reflux episode, as eating large meals is one of the biggest triggers. As tempting as it is to lie down after eating, try to stay upright as your food digests. Lying down works against the process of digestion, particularly if you are already at risk for chronic acid reflux.

Keeping your bi-annual dentist visits is a critical part of fighting GERD. There is no replacing a dentist in early detection of diseases and treating the damage that has already been caused. Acid reflux does not have to wreak havoc on your oral health, so if you know that you have GERD or are just generally concerned about protecting your teeth against erosion, call our office today! No matter what the dental issue is, we can always find a solution to maintain the health of your teeth and gums.

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