Eating leftover Halloween candy will not rot your teeth.
Eating candy or other sugary, starchy foods and leaving that food on your teeth is what will rot your teeth.
Caren Barnes, a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's College of Dentistry, has nothing against candy, Halloween or otherwise.
“Just eat as much as you want at one time, get it over with and then go brush your teeth,” said Barnes, who also is a dental hygienist. “It's not how much sugar you ingest. It's how long you let those sugars stay in your mouth.”
Bacteria in your mouth convert the sugars to acid, Barnes said, and acid eats away at the tooth's enamel. “That's how you get a cavity.”
Advances in dental care, such as dental sealants, and the presence of fluoride in the water supply and toothpastes have greatly reduced the levels of tooth decay among the general U.S. population.
But tooth decay remains the most common chronic disease of children and adolescents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. And some segments of the population, including low-income people, have high levels of tooth decay.
“About 75 to 80 percent of the population is pretty decay-free,” said Dr. Gary Westerman, the chairman of community and preventive dentistry at the Creighton University School of Dentistry. “Flip the coin, and about 20 to 25 percent of the population has quite a bit of decay.”
Brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day — in the morning and right before bed — helps prevent cavities, Barnes and Westerman said. The most important time to brush and floss, Barnes said, is before bed, because otherwise, your mouth functions as a bacteria incubator all night long.
Westerman and Carole Palmer, a professor at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Massachusetts, suggest brushing before you eat or drink sugary snacks.
When you brush your teeth, Palmer said, “What you're trying to get rid of is the dental plaque, the bacteria. ... The bacteria are what eats the sugar. That's why you get acid formed where the bacteria is: The bacteria are eating sugar and they are converting the sugar into acid. The acid is landing on the tooth right there.”
And it doesn't take a sugary product to expose your teeth to acid: Many artificially sweetened drinks, such as diet pop, contain citric acid. So when you sip on diet soda all day, Palmer said, you can harm your teeth.
“There's no sugar in the soda to feed the bacteria,” she said, “but there's acid in it. Acid can destroy the enamel of the teeth.”
She and Westerman said the one time you shouldn't brush is immediately after drinking pop.
The acid in the pop, Westerman said, “may have already initiated a little demineralization of that tooth. If you brush your teeth (then), you microscopically cause damage to the enamel.”
At that point, he said, it's better to rinse out your mouth with water.
If you're still worried about candy and what it will do to your kids' teeth, you could drop it off this week at a few dentists' offices in Omaha. (See a sampling of such offices at Omaha.com.) What might help more, though, is to supervise your kids as they brush their teeth. Barnes and Westerman said parents of children up to age 9 or 10 should make sure the kids are doing a good job brushing. “Little kids just don't have the manual dexterity,” she said. “They think they brush their teeth just fine.”
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