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White teeth and tooth discoloration

Our teeth start out white and shiny, but can become discoloured over the years. Causes of tooth discolouration include:

  • Foods/drinks. Coffee, tea, fizzy drinks, wines, and certain fruits and vegetables (for example, apples and potatoes) can stain your teeth.
  • Tobacco. Smoking or chewing tobacco can stain teeth.
  • Poor dental hygiene. Inadequate brushing and flossing to remove plaque and stain-producing substances like coffee and tobacco can cause tooth discolouration.
  • Disease. Several diseases that affect enamel (the hard surface of the teeth) and dentin (the material under the enamel) can lead to tooth discolouration. Treatments can also affect tooth colour. For example, head and neck radiotherapy and chemotherapy can cause teeth discolouration. In addition, certain infections in pregnant mothers can cause tooth discolouration in the infant by affecting enamel development.
  • Medication. The antibiotics tetracycline and doxycycline are known to discolour teeth when given to children whose teeth are still developing (before the age of eight). Mouth rinses and washes containing chlorhexidine and cetylpyridinium chloride can also stain teeth. Some antihistamines, antipsychotics, and drugs for high blood pressure also cause teeth discolouration.
  • Dental materials. Some of the materials used in dentistry, such as amalgam restorations, especially silver sulphide-containing materials, can give teeth a grey-black colour.
  • Advancing age. As you age, the outer layer of enamel on your teeth gets worn away revealing the natural yellow colour of dentin.
  • Genetics. Some people have naturally brighter or thicker enamel than others.
  • Environment. Excessive fluoride, either from environmental sources (naturally high fluoride levels in water) or from excessive use (fluoride applications, rinses, toothpaste, and fluoride supplements taken by mouth), can cause teeth discolouration.
  • Trauma. For example, damage from a fall can disturb enamel formation in young children whose teeth are still developing. Trauma can also cause discolouration to adult teeth.

How can I prevent teeth discolouration?

By making a few simple lifestyle changes. For example, if you are a coffee drinker and/or smoker, consider cutting back or giving up all together. Also, improve your dental hygiene by brushing and flossing regularly and getting your teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist as often as recommended.

If your teeth appear to be an abnormal colour without an obvious explanation and if other symptoms are also present, go to the dentist.

What treatment options are available to whiten teeth?

Treatment options to whiten teeth can vary depending on the cause of the discolouration and may include:

  • Correct tooth brushing and flossing techniques
  • Avoiding food and drinks that cause stains
  • Bondings
  • Veneers
  • Over-the-counter whitening agents
  • Whitening agents purchased from the dentist
  • Whitening procedures at the dentist’s surgery

Tips to keep your teeth white

Whitening treatments don't permanently whiten teeth. If you expose your teeth to foods and drinks that cause staining, the whiteness may start to fade in as little as one month after treatment. If you avoid foods and drinks that stain, it may be a year or longer before another treatment or touch-up is needed.

Here are some tips for pearly whites.

  • Avoid the consumption of, or exposure to, products that stain teeth, such as coffee, tea, and red wine. If you can’t give up, consider using a straw so the liquid bypasses your front teeth.
  • Brush or rinse immediately after consuming stain-causing beverages or foods.
  • Follow good oral hygiene practices. Brush your teeth at least twice daily and floss at least once a day to remove plaque. Use a whitening toothpaste (once or twice a week only) to remove surface stains and prevent yellowing. Use a normal toothpaste the rest of the time.
  • Consider touch-up treatments. Depending on the whitening method used, you may need a touch-up every six months or so after a year or two. If you smoke or drink lots of tea, coffee and/or red wine, you may need a touch-up more often.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on September 12, 2014

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