Do you ever get a burning sensation in your throat that seems to shoot up out of nowhere? Maybe you’re laying down, or just finished a big meal when that sharp tingling sensation suddenly makes your eyes water.
For those who have never experienced gastroesophageal reflux disease, more commonly known as acid reflux, this sudden, unmistakable pain may be alarming.
Acid reflux can be caused by a number of factors, including eating a heavy meal and laying down right away, being overweight, smoking or eating certain foods like citrus fruits, garlic or spicy foods.
15-30% of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with acid reflux and this number has seen a sharp increase in the last couple decades. In fact, 4.7 million hospitalizations and 1,653 deaths were a result of GERD according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
When left untreated, acid reflux can cause significant harm to your internal systems as well as your teeth. Unfortunately, 15-30% of people who suffer from acid reflux never seek medical care.
If left uncontrolled, chronic acid reflux can result in serious problems including esophagitis, Barett’s esophagus, strictures, and esophageal cancer. In addition to internal stomach problems, it can also badly damage your teeth.
Below we’ll outline how acid reflux is diagnosed and treated, and how it affects your teeth if left untreated. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms below, it’s important that you contact your medical provider for additional testing.
Symptoms of acid reflux
The Cleveland Clinic explains that gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter does not close properly and stomach contents leak back, or refluxes, into the esophagus.
When refluxed stomach acid touches the lining of the esophagus, it causes a burning sensation in the chest or throat called heartburn. The fluid may even be tasted in the back of the mouth. This is called acid indigestion. The main symptom sufferers note is persistent heartburn and acid regurgitation. Other people experience the feeling of food stuck in the throat, tightening in the throat or a chocking feeling.
Your teeth and mouth are not spared when you suffer from chronic acid reflux. One of the most common issues patients see is dental erosion. Dental erosion occurs when there is irreversible damage and loss of tooth enamel as a result of acids. Enamel covers the outer layer of the tooth and is the hardest substance in the body. When enamel erosion occurs, the enamel is worn away and leaves your tooth susceptible to damage caused by acids or bad bacteria. These foreign substances can do significant damage to the tooth and cause you a lot of pain.
Tooth erosion is divided into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic.
First, intrinsic erosion occurs when acid enters the mouth at a rate faster than saliva can keep up. Saliva acts as a natural neutralizer; however, if there’s too much acid, it will overwhelm your saliva production. This type of erosion is common in those with gastric reflux or conditions like GERD which results in reoccurring acid from the stomach getting into the mouth. It’s estimated that 34% of patients who suffer from tooth erosion also suffer from chronic acid reflux. Due to this, dentists are sometimes the first health provider to correctly identify the problem. While most people suffer tooth erosion due to normal things like eating acidic foods, patients with acid reflux have much more severe tooth erosion compared to their counterparts.
Extrinsic enamel erosion is a result of other external factors. Some experts believe this is an issue of the modern era since much of the damage is a result of soft drinks and fruit juices. Individuals who work in industrial or construction jobs may also be at a higher risk due to chemicals used that infiltrate the air.
Unfortunately, patients don’t often notice the difference in their teeth right away even when acid reflux is doing long-term damage. Since erosion is a slow process, it can go unnoticed by the untrained eye.
The most common sign of erosion is the yellowing of the teeth. This is a result of the dentin (the tissue beneath the enamel) showing through. This color change is an indication that your enamel is wearing thin.
In addition, transparency in your teeth—especially your front two teeth—is another sign of enamel loss. Your teeth might also look flatter and thinner, or display signs of craters or cupping. Since these changes are gradual, it’s important to visit your dentist on a biannual basis to monitor the progression of any changes to the teeth.
It’s also important to highlight how acid reflux can also harm other bodily systems.
Chronic inflammation of the esophagus can cause it to narrow, and damage the lower esophagus is common due to the formation of scar tissue. When scar tissue builds up, it narrows the path food take when swallowing and can lead to problems eating.
Acid reflux can also wear away tissue in the esophagus and cause an open sore (an ulcer) to form. This can lead to bleeding and complex complications that make swallowing, once again, more difficult.
The compounding of wear on the esophagus can also alter the tissues and increase the risk of esophageal cancer. Sometimes referred to as Barrett’s esophagus, this is a dangerous complication and highlights why treatment for this condition is so important.
Can your teeth be fixed?
Unfortunately, once enamel is lost it can’t be replaced. That’s why it’s so important to practice preventative strategies and maintain good oral health. This often includes taking prescribed medications for chronic acid reflux. Many patients admit to only taking their medication when they are having a severe incident. However, acid continues to come into the mouth even when you don’t feel it.
Some experts also encourage eating extra dairy such as milk and yogurt to boost the enamel on the teeth. In addition, these foods can add another layer of protection between acids and the tooth.
Finally, fluoride treatments have been proven to be effective in preventing dental erosion and protecting the health of the tooth enamel.
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