Everyone needs to take care of their teeth, but athletes can have a special burden. The sugary drinks, dry mouths, sweating and falling can each take a toll, some more than others, says Dr. Sharon Colvin, an athlete and an assistant professor in the department of general dentistry at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. Here’s an edited transcript of a Q&A with Dr. Colvin.
Q: Are athletes more prone to experience problems with their teeth, or just endurance athletes?
A: It has been my experience as a runner and power walker as well as a dentist for almost 30 years that athletes/endurance athletes do face some challenges when it comes to oral care. However, athletes are more prone to experience problems with bodily injuries versus problems with their teeth. They also tend to be particularly meticulous about self-care, which can actually help with their oral health.
Q : What’s most damaging to an athlete’s mouth: extra sugar and carbs in sports foods and drinks, extended periods of dry mouth, sweating or falling?
A: By far, what’s most damaging is the extra sugar found in sports drinks such Gatorade and protein shakes and sports foods like protein/meal replacement bars. Surely dry mouth coupled with heavy consumption of sports drinks, protein shakes, and food bars high in fermentable carbs (sucrose, fructose, and glucose) would be the most damaging to the athletes’ dentition.
Dry mouth is the result of the absence of a normal flow of saliva, or “spit,” throughout the oral cavity. Without normal salivary flow, the food which remains in the mouth after a meal is not washed away; the acid produced by specific bacteria in the mouth, which penetrates the tooth and causes decay, is not neutralized; and the first-line defense, the immune property found in saliva to prevent bacterial overgrowth, is diminished. These factors, coupled with a heavy consumption of sports beverages and foods high in sugar, can lead to rampant tooth decay.
Dry mouth may also be the result of an underlying medical disorder (e.g., Sjogren’s syndrome) or it may be the result of a side effect of medication: antihistamines, decongestants, painkillers or diuretics.
As a runner/power walker who happens to take medication for hypertension (a diuretic), I am very conscientious about my sugar consumption in an effort to prevent tooth decay. I brush and floss before and after meals or rinse vigorously with tap water until I am able to brush during my workday. At night before going to bed, I brush, floss and rinse with tap water and an over-the-counter fluoride mouth rinse.
Q : Are athletes better off sticking to water, and how often should they take a drink?
A : Water, without question, is considered the ultimate thirst quencher for the endurance athlete and it is better for teeth. However, low-sugar sports drinks (like G2, which is a low-sugar Gatorade) offer the water necessary for hydration plus the carbs and electrolytes that tend to provide the energy we need to stay strong in the race to the end with less sugar. Plus, the flavors found in the sports drinks help to take the monotony out of drinking just water. During my half-marathon race, I found that drinking a small amount of water and Gatorade (G2) every two to three miles helped me. However, everyone is different, and athletes should gauge the amount of hydration they need, and how often, while training for a given race.
Q : Can sugar-free gum help, or are there other methods to help athletes protect their teeth?
A : I have found that when I am engaged in training for a race or in the actual race, gum chewing of any kind gets really “slimy” and a little distracting, so I don’t chew gum during my endurance activities. There are fluoride mouth rinses that can be used before and after a race. Also, rinsing with regular tap water, which contains fluoride, can provide protection against tooth decay caused in part by a high consumption of sports drinks, protein shakes/food bars.
Q : Is pain the only way to identify when there is a problem, and when should an athlete see a dentist?
A: Pain is one way to identify when there is a tooth-related problem. However, mobile teeth and teeth that are hypersensitive to sweets and experience lingering discomfort (longer than a few seconds) when exposed to a cold or hot beverage/food item are examples of other ways one may identify a tooth problem that should be addressed. As far as the frequency of dental visits by athletes is concerned, the American Dental Association says, “There is no one-size-fits-all dental treatment. Some people need to visit the dentist once or twice a year; others may need more visits. You are a unique individual, with a unique smile and unique needs when it comes to keeping your smile healthy.” I concur. Athletes are unique individuals, and when one is to see a dentist, or how often, is contingent upon the specific needs of the “unique” athlete.