Athletes are healthy and fit, but what about their oral health? You might think that responsible and well-disciplined athletes would also be responsible and disciplined about their oral health. They eat a balanced diet and of course exercise regularly. They must have healthy mouths too, right?

The Facts

The facts state otherwise. A study of 352 Olympic and professional athletes showed that even though they had better oral health habits than most adults, 49% had untreated oral health concerns. Sports can be considered a risk factor in several oral conditions with an incidence of cavities up to 70%, of dental trauma up to 70%, of dental erosion up to 37%, of pericoronitis up to 39%, and periodontal disease up to 15%.


Oral health has a significant impact on overall wellness. It can impact the heart and lungs. Oral health problems can lead to systemic inflammation. This impact in overall health will also impact athletic performance.


Causes of Poor Oral Health for Athletes

1. Injury

The most obvious cause of oral health challenges in athletes is from accidents and injuries. Common injuries include traumas, broken or lost teeth, and joint disorders. It is essential that our athletes are taking full advantage of the protective equipment available to protect their mouths. Athletes must also be taught how to properly wear, clean, and store this equipment. An unhealthy tooth is more likely to be damaged if a sports injury happens. A tooth that has had a lot of decay and a lot of fillings is nowhere near as strong as a tooth that has not had decay and has not had a lot of fillings.

2. Saliva

Physical activity can lead to a reduction in salivary flow. It’s important to drink water during sports not only to protect your body from dehydration but also to protect your smile from dry mouth. Intensive activity leads to mouth-breathing and dry mouth. Saliva plays an important role in fighting decay-causing bacteria and protecting tooth enamel from erosion. Staying hydrated before, during, and after exercise with fluoridated water will help keep your mouth healthy and your body in tip-top shape!

3. Sports Drinks

Athletes eat healthy meals, but it is what they eat (and drink) between meals that can be a problem. The things athletes consume while training and playing can be an issue. Sports drinks spend millions on marketing messages that sports drinks will improve endurance and performance thanks to their electrolytes. However, sports drinks contain excess amounts of sugar. A 20-ounce serving contains 34 grams of sugar, equal to 8 ½ teaspoons of sugar! Sports drinks also contain high amounts of citric acid.

Bacteria and microbes in the mouth form a sticky plaque on the teeth. One thing these microbes love more than anything is sugar. More sugar leads to more plaque. Plaque creates an acid that erodes the tooth and gum tissues. These acids and the citric acids in the sports drinks eat away at the hard, protective outer layer of the tooth’s surface, the enamel. Once the enamel layer is damaged, the bacteria can infect and harm the gums, roots, nerves, and even the blood at the core of the tooth.

Alternatives to Sports Drinks

Athletes are drawn to sports drinks for the electrolytes. These electrolytes are really just sodium and potassium. These minerals are easily replenished in other ways without all the sugar. Bananas, apples, broccoli, apples, celery, carrots, and other root vegetables are good sources of sodium and potassium. There are also low sugar or sugar free sport drinks, but these may still contain citric acid. If you use them, be sure to rinse your mouth with plenty of water after drinking. Better yet, fill your water bottle with tap water and reap the benefits of fluoride to help protect your tooth enamel.

4. Energy Gels

Athletes, especially distance runners and long-distance cyclists often use energy gels to get a boost after about 90 minutes of intense exercise. These gels are essentially liquid carbs. These carbs are simple sugars that attack the teeth just as in sports drinks. These gels also have caffeine.

Alternatives to Energy Gels

Rather than commercial energy gels, pouches of pureed fruit or baby food will offer the same boost with less sugar and no caffeine. They are much cheaper as well! Again, be sure to rinse your mouth well afterwards with water.

5. Granola Bars & Dried Fruit

These are healthy snacks for an energy boost before or after a game, but as healthy as they may be for nutrition, they are not healthy for your mouth. The first problem is that most granola bars are high in sugar. The other problem is that this sugar is in the form of sticky liquids used to hold the granola together. Dried fruits are also highly sticky. This not only puts the highly damaging sugars onto your teeth, but they are that much harder to rinse or clean off. Most athletes don’t have the opportunity and cannot take time right after consuming these granola bars or dried fruit to brush their teeth!

Alternatives to Granola & Dried Fruit

A handful of almonds, sunflower seeds, and even a bit of dark chocolate is a much better choice. In fact, dark chocolate has polyphenols that help you mouth fight harmful bacteria. Whole fruits like apples, bananas, peaches, oranges, and apricots are also portable healthy snacks that can even help clean your teeth by stimulating saliva production. As always, rinse with water afterwards.


Everyone, Including Athletes Need to Practice Good Dental Hygiene

Good dental hygiene is key for oral health, and oral health plays a key role in our overall wellness. Practice makes perfect when you’re mastering the skills of any sport. So do the same with your daily dental habits. Keep your smile strong by brushing twice a day for two minutes and flossing once a day. Then, in the home stretch of your daily dental routine, use an ADA-Accepted mouthwash. Add regular dental check-ups and cleanings for the win in oral health! At Danville Family Dentistry we will help you take the best care of your athlete’s oral health. Contact us today!

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Disclaimer: The information included in this article is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.