Halloween can bring joy to the hearts of children (and adults). But, is it also bringing delayed sorrow in the form of painful and disappointing dental visits? Trick or treating may be the cornerstone of Halloween fun for America’s children, but it shouldn’t be an invitation to painful teeth and inflamed gums. Sugar can be hard on oral health (in addition to adding a little extra stress to healthy weight and blood sugar control), but that doesn’t mean that all Halloween candy has to be off limits. Keeping the fun in Halloween treats (by not letting it ruin future dental visits) is worth the little effort it takes. You may already avoid sticky caramels to save your fillings, but even in healthy, filling free teeth, you can take post-Halloween steps to keep your teeth in better shape.
In one sentence: Timing is everything.
When to Eat the Sweets
One of the best things you can do for your oral health is forgo snacks between meals. A healthy mouth at normal conditions has a neutral or slightly high pH. When you eat, the pH levels in your mouth drop, becoming more acidic.
This acid environment poses a two-fold risk to your tooth health. First of all, acid and enamel don’t mix. The acid dissolves the very minerals out of the tooth enamel that keeps the enamel strong. Over time, the demineralized spots can turn into holes, which we commonly refer to as cavities. Secondly, bacteria that are known to act in the caries (cavities) disease process thrive in acidic conditions. They eat and reproduce more successfully in the acid levels that follow eating.
Of course, the body has a natural protective mechanism for tooth enamel. It’s commonly known as saliva. When there is sufficient time between meals, saliva is able to return the oral environment to a neutral or slightly elevated pH level. It can only do so, however, if it has time to work. Constant snacking keeps pH levels low and acidic and overwhelms the mouth’s natural enamel defenders.
So what’s to be done with that giant pile of Halloween sweets? Simply indulge at mealtimes and skip the between meal sugar buzz. Eating only at mealtimes is likely to benefit your waistline as well, since people are less likely to overindulge in sweets once they’ve filled up on more nutritious fare. Also, when people know a treat is scheduled, they’re less likely to give in to cravings and eat more than they otherwise would have planned to eat.
When to Clean Up
After eating sweet or sugary food, you may be tempted to brush immediately to banish the sugar from your teeth. After all, cavity causing bacteria can’t snack on sugar that’s not there. But, the acid attacks that happen with eating are exactly why you should take a pause before vigorous brushing.
If you immediately begin brushing your teeth after eating, you risk brushing away all the minerals that dissolved out into the acid environment. Your minerals can redeposit into the enamel of given a chance when pH returns to high levels. Removing those minerals with well intentioned (but too aggressive for conditions) brushing can leave you more vulnerable to cavities than doing nothing might have. It’s currently recommended to wait at least 30 minutes before brushing.
To help clean up sugar and raise oral pH more quickly, you can swish with plain water after eating. A high pH rinse can also be used to protect tooth health. Chewing a sugar free gum with xylitol may also have some benefit.
Maintaining excellent oral care practices in general, brushing twice a day and flossing, are essential for preserving overall oral health, not just during Halloween time. A little extra awareness during holiday eating can help keep a little candy from turning into a big pain.