If you’re like up to half of the American population, you may have had a sugary drink today — and there’s a good chance it was soda. Drinking high-sugar soft drinks is most commonly associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain.

But sodas can also have ill effects on your smile, potentially leading to cavities and even visible tooth decay.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), men are more likely to drink soda and sugary drinks. Teenage boys drink the most and get about 273 calories from them per day. That number falls only slightly to 252 calories in their 20s and 30s.

When you drink soda, the sugars it contains interact with bacteria in your mouth to form acid. This acid attacks your teeth. Both regular and sugar-free sodas also contain their own acids, and these attack the teeth too. With each swig of soda, you’re starting a damaging reaction that lasts for about 20 minutes. If you sip all day, your teeth are under constant attack.

There are two main dental effects of drinking soda: erosion and cavities.

Erosion

Erosion begins when the acids in soft drinks encounter the tooth enamel, which is the outermost protective layer on your teeth. Their effect is to reduce the surface hardness of the enamel.

While sports drinks and fruit juices can also damage enamel, they stop there.

Cavities

Soft drinks, on the other hand, can also affect the next layer, dentin, and even composite fillings. This damage to your tooth enamel can invite cavities. Cavities, or caries, develop over time in people who drink soft drinks regularly. Add in poor oral hygiene, and a lot of damage can occur to the teeth.

The obvious solution? Stop drinking soda. But many of us just can’t seem to kick the habit. There are things you can do to lessen the risk of damaging your teeth, however.

  • Drink in moderation. Don’t have more than one soft drink each day. Just one will do damage enough.
  • Drink quickly. The longer it takes to drink a soft drink, the more time it has to wreak havoc on your dental health. The faster you drink, the less time the sugars and acids have to damage your teeth. (Just don’t use this as an excuse to drink twice as many soft drinks!)
  • Use a straw. This will help keep the damaging acids and sugars away from your teeth.
  • Rinse your mouth with water afterward. Flushing your mouth with some water after drinking soda will help wash away any remaining sugars and acids, and stop them from attacking your teeth.
  • Wait before you brush. Despite what you may think, brushing immediately after you have a soda isn’t a good idea. That’s because the friction against the vulnerable and recently acid-attacked teeth can do more harm than good. Instead, wait 30 to 60 minutes.
  • Avoid soft drinks before bedtime. Not only will the sugar likely keep you up, but the sugar and acid will have all night to attack your teeth.
  • Get regular dental cleanings. Regular checkups and exams will identify problems before they worsen.

Finally, you can do less damage to your teeth by choosing soft drinks that have a lower acid content. According to the Mississippi Department of Health, Pepsi and Coca-Cola are two of the most acidic soft drinks on the market, with Dr. Pepper and Gatorade not far behind.

Sprite, Diet Coke, and Diet Dr. Pepper are some of the least acidic soft drinks (but they are still quite acidic).

Soft drinks aren’t a healthy choice, but they’re a popular one. If you have to drink soda, do it in moderation and protect your dental health in the process.