During Your Dental Hygiene Career, Learn About Your Patient’s Diet & How It Impacts Their Teeth

Over time, even those who brush regularly may notice that their teeth aren’t as pearly white as they used to be—and worse, that they may be turning yellowish in colour or developing darker spots in certain places. This can be an upsetting change, causing some people to become self-conscious about their smile. 

In a career as a dental hygienist, you’re likely to encounter many patients complaining of tooth discolouration or yellowing of their teeth. In order to effectively advise these patients, it’s important to understand the various causes of tooth discolouration and yellowing. We examine five of those causes below. 

1. During Your Dental Hygiene Career, Be Aware of the Impact of a Patients’ Diet on their Teeth

Certain foods and beverages have a greater potential to stain our teeth, particularly those that are darker in colour. 

Foods or beverages that are dark in colour can stain a patient’s teeth

During your dental hygiene career, you can advise patients experiencing tooth discolouration that almost any food or drink which stains their clothes also has the potential to stain their teeth. Dark foods such as soy sauce, malt vinegars, and curry are all possible sources of stains. Additionally, foods that are high in tannins—bitter compounds that erode the tooth’s enamel and allow pigments to attach to the teeth—are a common cause of discolouration. Red wine, coffee, tea and chocolate are all examples of high-tannin foods. Darker fruits and vegetables such as beets or berries also contain high amounts of chromogens, substances which produce pigment that can stick to the teeth.

2. Tobacco Use Has a Negative Effect on the Teeth

Just as a patient’s diet can lead to extrinsic staining on the tooth’s enamel, smoking and tobacco usage is another lifestyle factor that can create external stains. Tobacco contains chemicals such as nicotine and tar, and over time these substances cause the surface of the teeth to become yellow and stained in colour. Depending on the extent of a patient’s tobacco usage, these stains can be difficult to correct, but quitting tobacco is always the first step in addressing this causal factor. Patients may be able to pair teeth-whitening products with a comprehensive oral care routine to reverse the effects of tobacco on the colouring of their teeth. 

Tobacco can cause yellowing or discolouration in a patient’s teeth

3. Certain Illnesses and Medications Can Cause the Teeth to Darken

Some patients will experience tooth discolouration as a result of intrinsic factors, in which something inside the teeth or body causes the teeth’s dentin (its inner structure) to stain. Because the staining comes from internal sources, intrinsic stains are notoriously more difficult to remove. There are several illnesses which affect both the teeth’s enamel and the dentin, causing discolouration. Patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancers of the neck or head may develop discolouration as a result of radiation, and prescription medications for asthma or high blood pressure can also have this effect. Additionally, infections suffered by a mother during their pregnancy, and the medications taken for them, can cause discolouration in an infant’s teeth. More common medications such as antihistamines and antipsychotics have also been known to be the cause of yellowing teeth.

4. Genetics and Age Play a Role in the Colour of Our Teeth

If you want to become a dental hygienist, you may encounter patients with discolouration or yellowing simply because of their genetics or their age. Some people are born with thicker or brighter enamel, but those who are born with a thin layer of enamel will be more susceptible to yellowing. Dentin is naturally yellow in colour, and when a patient’s enamel is thin, the yellowish dentin becomes visible in their teeth. 

While some are born with a thinner layer of enamel, enamel also gradually wears away over time. For this reason, a patient’s teeth may become more yellow with age. In order to prevent yellowing, patients must ensure that enough saliva is being produced, as saliva will wash away plaque and contaminants from the teeth. Elderly patients can also brush with fluoridated toothpaste to prevent yellowing.

5. Poor Dental Hygiene May Lead to Tooth Discolouration

While yellowing or discolouration may be caused by factors beyond a patient’s control, discolouration can often be prevented by developing improved oral hygiene practices. Patients should ensure that they are brushing and flossing twice a day to remove stain-producing contaminants and plaque, which can degrade tooth enamel. Additionally, advise patients to have their teeth professionally cleaned twice a year to prevent the buildup of substances on the teeth that cause discolouration.

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