Your teeth probably get just a little more than 10 minutes of your attention each day. You also, hopefully, remember to schedule your 6-month check-up so your dentist can give them some professional TLC. But right now, take some time to look – really look – at your teeth. Smile at yourself in the mirror. Your teeth might have something to say about your overall health.
Colour clues: Because of the popularity of tooth-whitening treatments, it seems more and more people have dazzlingly, sparklingly fluorescent white teeth. But don't worry if yours are closer to the light-greyish or yellowish range – that's normal for healthy adult teeth.
- Brown: Brown usually means the outer layer of the tooth is stained from drinking staining beverages, including coffee, tea, wine, or cola. Tobacco products also stain teeth brown. When the tooth surface appears brown and mottled, this could be a sign that your teeth were exposed to too much fluoride (fluorosis) back when your teeth were just developing in your childhood. A similar brown, mottled appearance can also be a sign of celiac disease, an inherited food intolerance that triggers intestinal inflammation, diarrhea, malnutrition, and weight loss.
- Grey: Teeth that appear greyer than normal could indicate previous infection or trauma to the tooth. Greying has also been linked to the use of certain antibiotics (tetracycline) before the teeth are fully formed or industrial exposure to some metals such as iron or manganese.
- White lines, streaks, or spots: Bright white spots on the teeth are usually a sign of mild fluorosis caused by over-exposure to fluoride as a child. Like brown spots, these white marks can also signal celiac disease.
- Yellow: Yellow means that you need to cut out stain-causing habits, like sipping tea, coffee, wine, or cola, eating acidic foods, or smoking cigarettes and other tobacco products. Teeth that have sustained trauma may look yellow, and certain nutritional deficiencies may cause the colour change. Teeth may also turn yellow from contact with stomach acid as a result of excessive vomiting, making yellow teeth a signal of the eating disorder bulimia. Yellowed teeth can also be another hint of celiac disease.
Wear and tear: You may spot thin, vertical cracks extending down the surface of some of your teeth. More than likely, these are craze lines, common, harmless, but quite oddly named lines that come with use and age. If you think you're too young to be "crazed," perhaps the cracks or wear on your teeth could be blamed on biting non-food items such as fingernails or pens or from bruxism – gritting, clenching, or grinding your teeth together. Bruxism often occurs during sleep, so you may not know you're doing it until you or your dentist spot the signs.
Abnormal enamel: When tooth enamel is healthy, the surfaces of your teeth are practically resistant to bacterial attack. But if the enamel is damaged, teeth become more vulnerable to decay, resulting in cavities. Damage to the enamel can occur for a number of reasons. Too much fluoride in childhood (fluorosis) can make the enamel appear pitted and rough. Acid from foods and drinks may erode enamel, and so can your own stomach acids. Celiac disease or another nutritional deficiency could also cause pitting of enamel or a translucent appearance to the teeth.
Signs you might feel rather than see: Tooth pain or sensitivity often means decay, trauma, or gum disease. But tooth pain can send you other important signals. Pain in one or more upper teeth may be a symptom of a sinus infection, while pain in the lower jaw can sometimes be an early warning of an impending heart attack.
If you are concerned about any changes you notice in the appearance or feeling of your teeth, don't wait for your next check-up. Contact your dentist for an appointment.