What your teeth can tell you

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 checkup 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.

Color 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-grayish or yellowish range - that's normal for healthy adult teeth.

  • Brown: Brown usually means you drink staining beverages, including coffee, tea, wine, or cola. Tobacco products also stain teeth brown. When 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. 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.

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  • Green: People with sickle-cell anemia will sometimes have a yellow-green tint to their surface of their teeth. A greenish hue may hint at bacteria, and some teas may stain the teeth green.

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  • Gray: Teeth that appear grayer than normal could indicate previous infection or trauma to the tooth. Graying has also been linked to use of certain antibiotics (tetracycline) before the teeth are fully formed or industrial exposure to some metals such as iron or manganese.

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  • White lines, streaks, or spots: Bright white spots on the teeth are usually a sign of mild fluorosis caused by overexposure to fluoride as a child. Like brown spots, these white marks can also signal celiac disease.

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  • Yellow: Yellowed teeth are another hint of celiac disease. More often, 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 color 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.

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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 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. Damage to the enamel can occur for a number of reasons. 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 checkup. Contact your dentist for an appointment.

The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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