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Yellow Teeth Color and Tooth Discoloration in the Elderly

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Human teeth are not perfectly white as it is often thought to be. The natural color of teeth can vary among individuals and is typically white gray to a light yellow in hue. Sometimes teeth may be a bit more yellow and even border on a light brown despite good dental hygiene and the absence of tooth related problems. There are various causes of tooth discoloration that may arise in life.

Sometimes the yellow tooth color may be present from the time that the first tooth erupts and becomes the natural tooth color for life. At other times, the tooth color may change and a person notices a distinct yellowing over time. The elderly may be at greater risk of experiencing yellowing of the teeth later in life. While it is not always related to dental health problems, the yellow color may be undesirable due to the cosmetic implications.

Tooth Color and Structure

The outer visible layer of the tooth is the enamel. It is a hard material that protects the underlying delicate tissue of the tooth. Enamel is naturally a gray-white to light yellow color. Daily cleaning is isolated only to the enamel and even tooth whitening products and procedures only target this outer enamel. Over time the enamel may take on a different color as it is subjected to the daily stresses and strains of chewing, making contact with various foods and drinks, as well as the daily cleaning regimen.

The resistance of the enamel may wear down with age and it can become more easily eroded in the senior years. Lying immediately below the enamel is the dentin which is a softer substance that has a natural yellow color. When the dentin gets more exposed with advancing age, the teeth have a more yellow color. Similarly, some of the more common causes of yellowing teeth is more likely to be seen as a person gets older yet, such as the use of certain chronic medication known to cause tooth discoloration. Therefore, advancing age holds a distinct risk for yellowing of the teeth.

Causes of Yellow Tooth Color

Discoloration and yellowing of the teeth may arise for various reasons. The most common causes are not related to any problem with dental health and hygiene. These causes include

  • Tobacco use including cigarette smoking and tobacco chewing.
  • Poor dental hygiene where there is inadequate or infrequent cleaning of the teeth. This is also a significant factor in the elderly who may lack the physical ability to maintain good dental hygiene or have cognitive impairment where they forget to take care of their teeth.
  • Consumption of foods and drinks with “harsh” chemical constituents that can affect the enamel. This includes coffee, tea, certain alcoholic drinks like wine, sodas especially cola, and other foods that can stain the teeth.
  • Age-related erosion of the enamel which then exposes the underlying dentin layer of the tooth which is naturally yellow.
  • Excessive use of fluoride, either in the drinking water or in dental care products like toothpaste, may, may cause yellowing of the teeth.
  • Genetic factors contribute to tooth color and may account for why some people naturally have a more yellow tooth color than others.

Iatrogenic causes are situations where yellowing of the tooth occurs as a result of medical treatment, either for dental problems or other ailments.

  • Dental materials used in treating or correcting tooth problems may cause discoloration of the teeth.
  • Drugs like antihistamines, antipsychotic drugs and certain medication for treating high blood pressure may lead to yellowing of the teeth when used over a period of time.
  • Mouth washes used for the prevention of dental problems that contain certain substances can stain teeth.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer is also known to lead to yellowing of the teeth.

Injury to the teeth and dental problems may lead to yellowing of the teeth. These are known as pathological causes of yellow discoloration of the teeth. It may include:

  • Injury to the tooth enamel with trauma, which includes hard brushing on a daily basis.
  • Eating disorders where there is daily purging (vomiting in particular) and nutritional deficiencies due to poor dietary habits.
  • Repeated and extensive tooth cavities.
  • Various metabolic and systemic diseases that may directly or indirectly impact on the health of the teeth and the tooth color.

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