When you think about eating disorders and their impact on health, the first problems that come to mind might be brittle bones, weak muscles, and perhaps heart conditions. But one eating disorder in particular can also have devastating effects on oral health. Bulimia, a condition in which patients binge on large amounts of food before purging—often by vomiting—affects about 1.5% of women and 0.5% of men over their lifetimes. It’s most common in teens, so as the parent of a teenager, it’s important that you’re informed about this condition and how it can affect your child’s dental health for the rest of his or her life.
Bulimia’s Effects On Dental Health
The stomach produces acidic fluids that are meant to help begin the digestive process. When you vomit, the acid comes up into your mouth and washes over your teeth. For the average person who vomits occasionally when they have the stomach flu, this is not a major concern. However, for a bulimic who vomits several times a day or week, excessive exposure to acid can have devastating effects on the teeth.
Over time, acid exposure can greatly weaken the enamel on a bulimic person’s teeth. This can lead to an array of problems, from cavities to tooth sensitivity. While your teen’s dentist can certainly fill a cavity caused by acid erosion, if the teen continues to purge by vomiting, the decay is likely to persist. This could cause the filling to loosen and eventually lead to the need for root canals, crowns, and perhaps even dental implants to replace badly damaged teeth.
Acid erosion can also give the teeth a yellowed appearance. For a teen who is already very insecure about his or her looks, this can be traumatic. Yellowing caused by acid erosion can’t be addressed with typical whitening procedures, either, so your teen’s only options for a white smile in the future may be veneers or crowns.
How Bulimics Can Protect Their Teeth
If your teen has been diagnosed with bulimia or you know that he or she engages in purging behaviors, the best thing you can do is ensure your teen gets treatment from a reputable therapist or psychological health center. Eliminate the vomiting behavior for long-term dental health. However, treatment takes time, so while your teen is still engaging in purging behaviors, there are some steps they can take to help minimize the effects on their teeth.
Rinse the mouth after purging.
Make sure your teen uses plain water to rinse his or her mouth after every vomiting episode. They should not brush their teeth immediately! The tooth enamel is at its weakest immediately after exposure to stomach acid, so brushing at this time will do more harm than good. Advise them to wait an hour and then brush gently with a soft toothbrush.
Use a fluoride mouthwash.
Purchase a mouthwash that contains fluoride for your teen to use once a day. The fluoride will help keep the tooth enamel stronger and more resistant to acid erosion. Also make sure your teen drinks fluoridated water. (Many brands of bottled water do not contain fluoride, so read the labels carefully.)
See the dentist more often.
Make sure your teen’s dentist knows that he or she has been diagnosed with bulimia. The dentist may want to see your teen more often so that if acid erosion and tooth decay do begin, they can be addressed promptly.
What To Do If You Suspect Bulimia
If your teen has been sneaking off to the bathroom immediately after meals, eating compulsively, vomiting quite often, or losing weight rapidly, you have good reason to suspect an eating disorder. The way you approach this situation as a parent is very important, not just for your teen’s dental health, but for their overall health and mental health as well. Experts recommend:
- Speaking with your teen in private about the eating disorder in a non-confrontational way.
- Avoiding any comments on your teen’s appearance and instead focusing on their mental health.
- Seeking the help of a therapist who has experience dealing with eating disorders in teens.
Regular dental care is important for all teens, but especially for those suffering from bulimia. Schedule a checkup today, and your dentist can give you more personalized recommendations for protecting your teen’s teeth during this challenging time.