Several things in the world can mess up your oral health. But cough syrup and cavities? It seems like a stretch. And slightly controversial—after all, you do need it for those pesky coughing spells. But what if cough syrup does increase your risk of tooth decay? And what if I said you didn’t need cough syrup after all?
Of course, cough medicine—as with all things—have their pros and cons. When we say cough syrup might contribute to tooth decay, the effect is just as potent as your standard carb-ridden meal. And some parents might find their children feeling better after a good spoonful. Going off research and general professional opinion, however, most people agree that cough medicines don’t really work for kids aged 6 and under. And they do have ingredients that can increase your chances of cavities.
How so, you may ask? Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of cough syrup and cavities:
How does cough syrup work, anyway?
Before we look at how cough syrup increases your risk of cavities, we should probably know how cough syrup works first. Understanding the types is an excellent way to start. As it turns out, not all cough medicines work the same way. Typically, you’ve got two kinds:
- Expectorants. This type of cough syrup works by thinning out the gooey gunk blocking your airways. After all, when you cough, what your body’s trying to do is clear out these areas so you don’t choke to death. The thinner the mucus, then, the less likely you’ll be hacking your lungs out.
- Cough suppressants. On the other hand, this type of cough syrup works by telling your brain to stop coughing. Or, at least, reduce the urge to. If you have a particularly wet cough, suppressants might not work as well. (And you probably shouldn’t take them if you’ve got a lot of mucus closing up your airways.)
Of course, these types of medicines only really treat the symptoms. They don’t necessarily fix what causes them in the first place. So while you and your child might feel a lot better after a dosage, you’ll probably find yourself coughing again not too long after.
Why is cough syrup bad for your teeth?
Now that we’ve gotten into how cough medicines work, why are they bad for teeth, exactly? It really depends on what’s in them. According to the British Dental Journal, syrupy medications can wear out your enamel, increasing your risk of cavities. Add the low pH levels and acidity in specific formulations, and you’ve got a tasty cocktail for your oral bacteria.
Over-the-counter antihistamine syrups for allergies and the flu can contribute to tooth decay if taken consistently over time. Even syrups, specifically for children, can increase one’s tooth decay risk. The sugar in these syrups, besides enhancing flavor, also helps feed the harmful bacteria in the mouth. Thus, this increases the chances of cavity development.
As well as this, the acidic pH of the syrup is likely to erode the protective layer (enamel) of the teeth. As a result, this can cause tooth sensitivity over time as well as potential cavities as the protective enamel erodes. It’s important to note that once the teeth’s enamel layer is gone, it’s gone for good. However, you can build your enamel layer back up if it only has slight erosion.
This combination of being cavity-friendly and relatively useless doesn’t put cough syrup in a good light. So if this isn’t the way to go, what then can you do when you find yourself in a bout of chest-wracking hacks? Well, a lot of other things. For one, taking in a lot of fluids could help loosen that mucus. Warm ones, in particular, are a great source of relief. For another, you can also use a humidifier or some nasal saline. Both methods prevent those passageways from drying out, which doesn’t just stop you from coughing more. It also gives an added dental benefit—it contains a dry mouth and the slew of problems that come with it.
So, What Should You Do if You Need to Take Cough Syrup?
While this is not to say you should stop taking cough syrups and other medicated syrups when you’re sick, it’s essential to pay attention to the potential disadvantages to avoid cavities and other oral problems.
Here are a few things you should be aware of if you are to take syrup medicine in the future:
- Don’t brush the teeth until at least a half-hour after taking the syrup. (Brushing before a half-hour after consuming acidic substances can mess up your mouth’s pH level. By brushing immediately, you’re scrubbing the acid deep within your teeth, causing erosion. For these reasons, wait a half hour before brushing.)
- Only take these syrups when needed, taking the correct dosage. If you aren’t sure if you need this syrup or not, speak to a doctor.
- Try to avoid taking a syrup before bedtime considering saliva flow is at its lowest. Saliva is vital to help wash away sugary, acidic residue provided by the syrup.
- Take these syrups with meals: the more saliva flow, the better. Saliva plays a vital role in helping to wash away excess syrup leftover in the mouth.
- Talk with a dental professional if these syrups must be taken consistently to ensure the teeth’ health will be at its best.