The link between our oral and overall health has been long understood, but there’s still plenty to learn about how common health conditions can affect our teeth. As an example, acid reflux, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can negatively impact one’s tooth health over the long term if not treated properly. According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF), an estimated 1 in 6 Canadian adults will experience GERD symptoms at some point in their lifetime.
Even dental professionals with decades of experience have made the mistake of overlooking GERD and its symptoms. For Gloria Alban, DDS, RHN, it was a personal diagnosis of acid reflux that allowed her to see the oral health ramifications of the condition, which can be severe. According to Dr. Alban, oral symptoms of GERD can include excess salivation, a sour taste in one’s mouth, pronounced tooth sensitivities, enamel erosion, and more.
The good news for hygienists and their patients alike is that GERD is an easily treatable condition. Many patients find that they can manage the condition via simple lifestyle modifications, including dietary changes, and/or medical treatments for GERD. Here’s what you need to know about identifying GERD, as well as keeping teeth safe from the harmful effects of acid reflux.
Acid Reflux: Symptoms and Causes
Most of us have experienced indigestion in some form. Acid indigestion typically manifests as mild heartburn and goes away on its own, but it can also develop into something more serious: GERD. Persistent heartburn could be a sign of GERD, and other common symptoms include regurgitation and increased stomach acid production. It is these symptoms that cause the most damage to teeth, eroding tooth enamel and causing decay.
That’s because tooth enamel begins to soften and erode when exposed to a pH level of 5.5 or below. On a pH scale, lower numbers indicate higher acidity, and stomach acid clocks in at about 2.0, wreaking havoc on our teeth. Prolonged exposure to high acidity stomach acids can lead to tooth discoloration, decay, chipping, and pronounced hot/cold sensitivity.
While people can develop GERD for various reasons, the foods we eat are among the condition’s biggest triggers. When you or a patient is experiencing heartburn or other symptoms of acid reflux, it’s a good idea to avoid certain foods, including
- Fried and heavily processed foods
- Spicy food
- Garlic and onions
- Fruits with high pH levels, such as pineapple, tomato, and citrus
- Caffeinated beverages
Ultimately, however, the foods that trigger acid reflux can vary significantly among individuals. As such, keeping a food log can help patients and healthcare providers alike to identify the root cause of GERD symptoms.
Preventive Health and Lifestyle Modifications
Following an acid reflux episode, a fast response is essential to help prevent further damage to the teeth. Encourage patients to brush twice a day, and rinse their mouth out with a mixture of baking soda and water after experiencing an acid reflux episode, to help neutralize any acids that may be lurking around. Yet it’s important to note that keeping one’s teeth clean is just the beginning, in terms of preventive health and GERD.
If you have a well-tuned awareness of how all aspects of individual health are connected, it’s likely that you already recommend lifestyle modifications to certain patients. Perhaps you encourage patients to engage in physical activity to support periodontal health, for example. In addition, regular doctor visits and an emphasis on self-care can keep patients smiling long into the future.
According to eye care professionals, the importance of preventative health practices cannot be overstated. For starters, engaging in preventive measures when you’re young, from exercise to dietary changes, regular oral care, and beyond, can keep you healthier as you age. Preventative health can also reduce your likelihood of developing chronic conditions, and may even save you money on costly medical procedures and prescriptions down the road.
Protecting Oral Health Over the Long-Term
Speaking of prescriptions, in recent years, certain medications used to treat GERD symptoms have come under fire due to their purported health risks. Proton-pump inhibitors, or PPIs, are particularly notable in this regard: PPIs are available by prescription and over-the-counter and serve as an acid blocker of sorts. The medication has enjoyed mainstream use for more than 30 years, reports Michigan Healthand PPIs are “very safe” and “very effective,” despite criticism.
In the treatment of GERD symptoms, PPIs are often taken in tandem with antacids and H2RAs, which inhibit the release of histamine and stop stomach acid in its tracks. For patients with pronounced tooth decay and damage from acid reflux, medical therapy may provide GERD symptom relief and the best chance at improved oral health. Much like our dietary triggers, however, individual responses to medications can vary significantly among patients. Some people with acid reflux may need to try several forms of medical therapy before finding one that provides lasting relief.
Individual tooth health is determined by several factors, including our lifestyle, dietary choices, and oral care habits. For those living with acid reflux, protecting your teeth is of crucial importance, and preventive health can take you far.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism