Swimmers Teeth And Dental Problems

With the Olympics just recently completed, everyone I know had something to say about Michael Phelps and his amazing run of eight gold medals. You can only imagine the thousands of hours he spent in the pool training for this moment. With that in mind, it got me thinking about my eight-year-old son, Parker, and an interesting situation that developed due to his love of the water.

I had previously run the following column four years ago, but given the timeliness, I hoped you would find it both interesting and educational.

My four-year-old son Parker recently had a dentist appointment due to some concerns my wife and I were having about a slow but progressive discoloration of his teeth. We had been diligent about brushing his teeth, but this didn’t seem to make a difference. He had fallen hard to his mouth several times over the last year and we were afraid he had damaged the root system and his upper teeth were slowly dying.

Parker is a very active child and is quite adept in his physical skills. He took to swimming very early and became completely independent in the pool by age two, swimming without water wings or support. He now may spend up to four or five hours a day in the water. He has beautiful reddish blonde hair and sharp eyes, but those teeth were creating some anxiety around our house. Parker’s teeth looked as if he might have a two pack per day smoking habit.

My wife took him to the dentist and began to describe our concerns. She was immediately asked, “Does he swim a lot?” Of course, she responded that he did and the dentist said, “He probably has swimmer’s teeth and I should be able to clean it right off.”

After 30 minutes in the dental chair, Parker came out smiling like one of those Crest toothpaste models on television with perfectly white teeth.

So what is “swimmer’s teeth?” Certainly this was the first I had heard of this, so I spoke with Dr. Ken Owens, a dentist here in Fernandina, who provided me with some interesting information. Swimmer’s teeth is well known among dentists and is commonly seen in competitive swimmers due to the amount of time they spend training in the water.

Repetitive exposure to the chemicals in pool water causes yellowish to brown deposits to form on the teeth, most commonly the front ones. Also known as “swimmer’s calculus,” the deposits are similar to common plaque or tartar that forms on the teeth but tend to be much darker in color and thus give a very unsightly appearance.

The deposits are a combination of a protein contained within saliva as well as calcium phosphates, magnesium, fluoride and carbonates. The chemical makeup of the pool water is believed to chemically alter these slightly, leading them to deposit on the teeth.

Swimmer’s teeth is uncommon in children younger than six and I couldn’t find a reported case of it ever occurring in a child Parker’s age. It is most common in the teen years. It has nothing to do with the frequency of brushing and routine brushing will not change its development. It relates specifically to the amount of time one spends in the pool. Fortunately it is treatable and the discoloration is not permanent.

This column is written to discuss issues regarding sports, medicine and safety. It is not intended to serve as a replacement for treatment by your regular doctor. It is only designed to offer guidelines on the prevention, recognition and care of injuries and illness. Specific concerns should be discussed with your physician. Mail your questions to Gregory Smith, M.D., Sports Medicine, 1250 S. 18th St., Suite 204, Fernandina Beach, Fl 32034. For appointments call 261-8787 or visit Dr. Smith’s website, www.gsmithmd.com.


    PLEASE help!!! I think I have swimmer’s calculus, but don’t know what it looks like! Do you have any pictures of it? Thank you SO much!

    (Do you think it’s possible that I have it, even though I only regularly spend between 6 and 8 hours per week in the water?)

    THANK YOU!!!!!

  • Lindy

    My son is 13 yrs. old and has been swimming competitively for several years. He swims 3-5 times a week, spending a couple of hours each session. He’s been complaining of very sensitive teeth (couldn’t bite into a thick cookie!), and his dentist asked if he’s a swimmer. Apparently it’s the salts and not the chlorine in the water (our pool uses a lactrinator). He told me that his teeth are demineralizing and to use a special toothpaste or rinse after swimming. Since teeth cannot remineralize, I’m wondering if he should quite swimming! Any advice or other suggestions?