If you pass on hot or cold drinks because you know they’ll make your teeth hurt, it may be time to talk to your dentist about the possibility that you have sensitive teeth.
Sometimes other things can aggravate them, too, like sweet and sour foods or even cold air.
To be able to treat these tooth twinges, it helps to know what might be behind them. Once you’ve nailed down the cause, you can find a solution.
What causes sensitive teeth?
Some people naturally have more sensitive teeth than others due to having thinner enamel. The enamel is the outer layer of the tooth that protects it. In many cases, the tooth’s enamel can be worn down from:
- brushing your teeth too hard
- using a hard toothbrush
- grinding your teeth at night
- regularly eating or drinking acidic foods and beverages
Sometimes, other conditions can lead to tooth sensitivity. Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), for example, can cause acid to come up from the stomach and esophagus and may wear down teeth over time. Conditions that cause frequent vomiting — including gastroparesis and bulimia — can also cause acid to wear down the enamel.
Gum recession can leave sections of the tooth exposed and unprotected, also causing sensitivity.
Tooth decay, broken teeth, chipped teeth, and worn-down fillings or crowns can leave the dentin of the tooth exposed, causing sensitivity. If this is the case, you’ll likely only feel sensitivity in one particular tooth or region in the mouth instead of the majority of teeth.
Your teeth may be temporarily sensitive following dental work like getting fillings, crowns, or teeth bleaching. In this case, the sensitivity will also be confined to one tooth or the teeth surrounding the tooth that received dental work. This should subside after several days.
Symptoms of sensitive teeth
People with sensitive teeth may experience pain or discomfort as a response to certain triggers. You may feel this pain at the roots of the affected teeth. The most common triggers include:
- hot foods and beverages
- cold foods and beverages
- cold air
- sweet foods and beverages
- acidic foods and beverages
- cold water, especially during routine dental cleanings
- brushing or flossing teeth
- alcohol-based mouth rinses
Your symptoms may come and go over time for no obvious reason. They may range from mild to intense.
Take Care of Your Tooth Enamel
That’s a hard, protective layer that helps your teeth deal with everything you put them through. When it’s gone, nerve endings that cause pain are exposed.
If you have sensitive teeth, some of your enamel may have worn away.
To prevent or put the brakes on that damage:
Don’t brush too hard. Do you clean your teeth with a heavy hand? You might be taking off more than just plaque. Side-to-side brushing right at the gum line can make your enamel go away faster. You should use a soft-bristled brush and work at a 45-degree angle to your gum to keep enamel clean and strong.
Avoid acidic foods and drinks. Soda, sticky candy, high-sugar carbs — all of these treats attack the enamel. Instead, snack on:
- Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
- Plain yogurt
These will moisten your mouth and help fight acid and bacteria that can eat away at your teeth. Saliva is one way your mouth deals with them.
You can also drink green or black tea or chew sugarless gum. If you do eat something acidic, don’t rush to brush. Wait an hour or so to strengthen before you scrub.
Get to the Root of the Problem
Sometimes, tooth sensitivity can be a sign of other issues, like:
Naturally shrinking gums. If you’re over 40, it could be that your gums are showing signs of wear and tear by pulling away from your teeth and uncovering your tooth roots. Those roots don’t have enamel to protect them, so they’re much more sensitive than the rest of your tooth.
Tell your dentist if your gums look like they’re receding. It can be a sign of other problems, like gum disease. Serious cases may need a gum graft. That moves tissue from somewhere else to cover the bare area.
Gum disease. Plaque and tartar buildup on your teeth can make your gums pull back. Sometimes, the disease can set in. It can destroy the bony support of your tooth. Don’t smoke. It can lead to gum disease. To treat it, your dentist may do a deep clean of your teeth, called planing or scaling, that scrapes tartar and plaque below the gum line. You could also need medication or surgery to fix the problem.
A cracked tooth or filling: When you break a tooth, the crack can go all the way down to your root. You’ll notice pain when your tooth is cold. How your dentist fixes the crack depends on how deep it goes. If it’s a small crack that ends before your gums start, your dentist can fill it. If it’s below your gum line, your tooth will have to be pulled.
How is tooth sensitivity treated?
If your tooth sensitivity is mild, you can try over-the-counter dental treatments.
Choose a toothpaste that’s labeled as being specifically made for sensitive teeth. This toothpaste won’t have any irritating ingredients and may have desensitizing ingredients that help block the discomfort from traveling to the nerve of the tooth.
When it comes to mouthwash, choose an alcohol-free mouth rinse, as it will be less irritating to sensitive teeth.
Using softer toothbrushes and brushing more gently can also help. Soft toothbrushes will be labeled as such.
It typically takes several applications for these remedies to work. You should see an improvement within a week.
If home treatments don’t work, you can talk to your dentist about prescription toothpaste and mouthwash. They may also apply a fluoride gel or prescription-grade desensitizing agents in-office. These can help to strengthen the enamel and protect your teeth.
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