Dental damage
A set of simulated healthy teeth (left) sit next to "Mr. Gross Mouth" to show how neglecting dental hygiene can affect someone's smile.

FORT SILL, Okla. -- Candy is officially taking a backseat as the leading culprit for causing cavities. Now sweet snacks and sugary drinks are driving dental emergencies and Fort Sill Dental Activity Soldiers are on the forefront of the battle.

In an article by the Consultant to the Surgeon General for Dental Public Health, the Army is seeing more cavities from frequent snacking habits and the popularity of soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened coffee, sweet tea, and drinks like frappucinos.

"The reason sugar causes cavities is because the bacteria in your mouth eats sugar. The more sugar, the more bacteria, and the more byproduct the bacteria puts out which is acid," said Col. Michael Roberts, Fort Sill Dental Activity commander.

Drinks that contain high amounts of sugar, caffeine and citrus flavors, like many energy drinks, often cause extensive tooth decay likely due to the combination of high sugar content and organic acids.

Spc. Nicole McCarthy, Allen Dental Clinic dental assistant, said while she understands why so many Soldiers rely on energy drinks to fight through long days, she avoids them.

"I smell it and it smells so sweet and plus my husband drinks them all the time and he can't sleep," said McCarthy.

Roberts said energy drinks are not necessarily bad, but regular use of them can be.

"Soldiers are heavily addicted to them, and they end up drinking them all day. So they're bathing their teeth in basically sugar all day and, oh, by the way, they're overdosing on caffeine and becoming highly addicted to them as well. Kind of a double whammy," said Roberts.

The 2008 Tri-Service Oral Health Survey revealed that Army recruits have higher numbers of untreated cavities compared to other DoD recruits. A study at the largest Army installation showed that about one-third of Soldiers develop new treatment needs every year.

"Our number one mission here at Fort Sill is first term dental readiness. If they have any dental problems, we're supposed to fix them while they're in basic training and AIT here. By the time they graduate, 95 percent of them are dentally deployable," said Roberts.

He said part of the Army's readiness is making sure Soldiers are dentally sound and able to deploy on a moment's notice for up to a year without a dental emergency.

"During the Vietnam War the number one reason for Soldiers not being at their post was because of dental problems. Number one loss of man-hours was due to disease nonbattle dental. It was kind of an eye opener for a lot of people," said Roberts. "Back then there was no prevention. We only treated it when there was a problem."

Army dentists said to pay attention to the amount of sugar in a drink and really look for serving size. While a bottle may look like it doesn't contain a high amount of sugar, the serving size on the label could be double or triple that amount in one drink.

The most popular energy drink purchased at AAFES stores, a 16-ounce Monster, has 13 teaspoons, and the most popular soda, a 20-ounce Mountain Dew, has over 18 teaspoons of sugar.

"There are two types of dental emergencies. There could be trauma, you get bumped and knock something out or break something. The other is pain, swelling, something related to a toothache and infection, essentially. That's why we're working so hard to get people away from those drinks. They cause cavities and that's the big piece of the dental emergency is they get a cavity and they go off somewhere and it abscesses and then we have a dental emergency," said Roberts.

Col. Johnette Shelley, Army Dental Command Health and Wellness director, recommends Soldiers practice the following countermeasures to protect themselves from decay:

1) Replace sugared beverages with sugar-free alternatives such as plain water, mineral water, or unsweetened coffee or tea.

2) Fruit juice contains sugar and acid also, so limit juice to six ounces of calcium-fortified juice per day. Eat fresh fruit to meet daily fruit intake goals.

3) Drink sugary or acidic drinks quickly, within 15 minutes, rather than sipping on them for an extended period of time.

4) Limit meal, beverage and snack intake to no more than five times per day. Combine sugary beverages or juice with a meal, ideally near the beginning of the meal.

5) Try to drink sugary, erosive drinks cold to minimize the acidic effects.

6) Use a straw that reaches to the back of the tongue to keep the drink away from your teeth.

7) Drink plain water immediately following the sugared drink to 'wash' it off of the teeth and neutralize the acid from the drink. Chew sugar-free or xylitol gum to help neutralize acid also.

8) Wait at least 20 minutes after drinking sugary beverages or 100-percent fruit juice before brushing teeth with fluoridated toothpaste.

9) Do not rinse your mouth after brushing. Just spit several times to remove the excess toothpaste. Also, don't eat or drink anything for at least 20-30 minutes after you brush so the fluoride will stay on your teeth as long as possible and protect them better.

Editors note: Some information gathered from "Army Dentists Fight Uphill Battle Against Sugar, by Col. Georgia Rogers, a consultant to the Surgeon General for Dental Public Health.

Page last updated Thu July 3rd, 2014 at 14:39