5 Mistakes That Put Your Mouth at Risk for Cavities

Why you should reconsider bottled water, overzealous brushing, and these other harmful habits.

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More than 1 in 5 Americans has untreated cavities, finds a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And candy-loving kids aren't the only ones suffering: People ages 20 to 44 have the highest rate of cavities, compared to the younger set. So what are we doing wrong? Quite a bit. Besides working on the obvious—brushing and flossing twice a day and visiting your dentist regularly—you should make changes in these five areas.

Mistake: You exclusively drink bottled water. Yeah, we know. You thought your plastic habit was super healthy. And it's way better than having sugary and acidic drinks. But if your community has a fluoridated water supply and you never drink from it, you could be doing yourself a disservice, says David Dowsett, a family dentist based in Portland, Ore. That's because fluoride, a mineral that can prevent and even reverse tooth decay, may not be found in all bottled water, or bottled water may contain only miniscule amounts, according to the CDC. That said, 73.9 percent of the current U.S. population has access to regular water that has enough fluoride to protect teeth. "Fluoride is not just for kids," says R. H. Price, a dentist and American Dental Association (ADA) spokesperson in Newton, Mass., so make sure your toothpaste also contains fluoride. Then try tap water: You may like it.

Mistake: You drink sodas and sports drinks—and, yes, diet versions count. These beloved beverages aren't great for our general health, and they're "probably the worst thing" for our dental health, says Dowsett. Blame sugars and citric acid, a preservative that can erode tooth enamel. Enamel, a thin, protective covering, can never be replaced once damaged or lost. In fact, a new study found that sports and energy drinks in particular are causing irreversible damage to the teeth of U.S. teens and young adults due to high acidity levels. (Although diet sodas aren't sugary, they are still acidic.) "The older we get, the more susceptible we are to wear and tear," Price says. The bottom line: Step away from that soda. Water is the best option.

[See: Popular Kids' Drinks to Avoid]

Mistake: You snack too often. Chewing stimulates salivary flow, which then helps neutralize acid and rinse away food, the ADA reports. But if you're only chewing for a short time (that is: snacking), you don't produce as much saliva, which can leave your teeth vulnerable to acids. (Bacteria in plaque produce acids that damage enamel, but remember that acids are also in foods and beverages.) In general, "the less saliva you have, the more tooth decay you're going to have," says Price. Plus, it can take an hour for the mouth to neutralize acids, and your teeth don't have time to recover if you're constantly nibbling.

So limit sugary and acidic foods and drinks to mealtimes, if you have them at all. You should be especially vigilant if you're taking medications that result in dry mouth, such as those that treat depression and high blood pressure, Price says. And avoid sugary hard candies and taffies, which can linger on teeth. If you crave candy or gum, choose sugar-free versions that contain xylitol, which can help prevent tooth decay. If you have dry mouth, chewing that gum can relieve symptoms. Or have a bit of chocolate, since you can more easily rinse away remnants with water, Dowsett says. (That's right, chocolate.)

[See: 6 'Bad' Foods That Really Aren't]

Mistake: You brush too soon. We're all for eagerness about good health, but brushing your teeth right after eating or drinking acidic foods could hurt you. That's because if you brush before letting your saliva do its job, you're rubbing against already weakened enamel. So extend your conversation after dinner. Or go for a walk to pass the time. Just make sure to wait a half hour to an hour to brush after meals.

Mistake: You're brushing badly. When you're finally ready to clean your teeth, use a soft-bristle brush. But don't quickly wiggle your toothbrush around and move on: To reduce plaque and have fresh breath, clean all surfaces of your chompers. That includes the inner areas, the rear surfaces of your back teeth, and the spaces in between. (You'll need floss for that last part.) Hey, cleaning your teeth takes just minutes a day. Trust us, you can spare the time.