Tooth decay is common in teenagers, and is mainly caused by sipping soda all day and eating sugary or starchy convenience snacks. The average teenage boy in the United States consumes 81 gallons of soft drinks each year.

Peer pressure is one reason teens drink too much soda.

Peer pressure overrides teens’ good health habits and causes them to make unhealthy choices just to fit in. If the “in crowd” carries soda around all day and eats sugary snacks, that becomes the standard.

Peer pressure also causes many other threats to the oral health of teens. Oral and facial piercing, grills, smoking and purging are a few.

Oral piercing (tongue, lips, cheeks or uvula) can be dangerous if not done properly. The ornaments worn usually interfere with speaking, chewing and swallowing. Common complications of oral piercing are drooling, infection, chipped or cracked teeth, injuries to the gums, damage to fillings, scar tissue and nerve damage. Tongue studs are often accidentally bitten, causing chipped, cracked or broken teeth.

Grills are decorative covers that snap over teeth. Teens wear them to emulate celebrity icons. However, they tend to trap bacteria and food under them, causing bad breath and tooth decay. These grills have also been known to cause gum irritation, damage to the enamel of the teeth that bite against them, and even chipped teeth. Grills may be today’s trend, but can cause permanent damage.

Teens also feel pressure to be physically perfect. Some even develop eating disorders such as purging, which is self-induced vomiting designed to undo the effects of binge eating. Purging can significantly impact dental health. The stomach acid that digests our food comes up with the food when a person makes himself vomit. These stomach acids irritate the gum tissues and soften the hard outer layer of the tooth (enamel). The enamel will gradually dissolve (erode) after repeated exposure to stomach acid. Over time, this erosion leaves the inner, yellow tooth structure, called dentin, exposed and sensitive. Dentin is very vulnerable to decay, and may develop multiple cavities and maybe lead to a root canal. A dentist can easily spot the signs of purging. When acid splashes up against the teeth, it leaves a distinct wear pattern in the enamel. Purging is a serious medical problem that needs immediate attention.

Teens may also feel peer pressure to begin using tobacco. There is no safe form of tobacco. Tobacco harms the mouth, as well as the rest of the body. Smokeless tobacco wears away gums and increases risk of tooth decay and gum disease.

Smokeless tobacco causes white leathery patches that can turn into mouth sores or oral cancer. Smoking causes yellow teeth, bad breath and wrinkles. Smoking can also cause gum disease, jaw-bone loss, tooth loss and oral cancer. Smokers also tend to have more tooth decay than nonsmokers do.

It is difficult for teens to resist peer pressure from friends, but understanding what the consequences of poor oral health behaviors can be will help them do so. By avoiding threats to their oral health, their smiles can last a lifetime.