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Eating Disorders Can Show Up in Teeth First

by Lucy Stock BDS DipImpDent RCS (Eng)

Published in the Irish News . 26.02.2014

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses affecting 1.6 million people in the UK – they claim more lives than any other mental illness but are treatable and recovery is possible. Eating Disorders Awareness Week is taking place 24 February – 2 March 2014. It is often the pain and discomfort related to dental complications that first causes patients to consult with a health professional. Dentists are often the first health professionals to observe signs and symptoms of eating disorders.

The frequent vomiting and nutritional deficiencies often associated with eating disorders can severely affect oral health. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, studies found up to 89 percent of bulimic patients have signs of tooth erosion, due to the effects of powerful stomach acid. Over time, this loss of tooth enamel can be considerable. This causes the tooth to change from a whiter shade to the more yellow / brown colour of the underlying dentine layer. Acid erosion from stomach acid dissolves the teeth causing the front teeth to shorten and round off, while back teeth become blunt and dimpled. Eroded teeth tend to be brittle, translucent and feel sensitive to temperature. The salivary glands may swell, causing the jaw to widen and appear squarish. Lips may become reddened, dry and cracked, and the patient may also experience a chronic dry mouth. 

Referral to health professionals and encouragement to seek treatment for an eating disorder is critical as early diagnosis and intervention greatly improve the opportunities for recovery. The first port of call for a sufferer can be the GP. Beat is an organisation to help eating disorder sufferers and can give people suggestions for how to approach their doctor. For the Beat helpline and more info check out www.b-eat.co.uk.

Steps to help sufferers reduce the damage to their teeth:

  • Rinsing with water for 30 seconds after vomiting will dilute any remaining stomach acids.
  • Wait at least an hour after vomiting before brushing the teeth otherwise the softened enamel from the stomach acids will be brushed away even faster.
  • Use a fluoridated mouthwash at different times of the day from tooth brushing to help strengthen teeth.
  • Your dentist can cover the eroded areas to protect the teeth, reduce sensitivity and improve appearance.
  • A bite guard can be made to protect the teeth during vomiting.