If you’ve ever scooped a spoon of ice cream or hot soup and felt a jolt of discomfort or pain in your teeth, you may struggle with tooth sensitivity. Dentin hypersensitivity, or tooth sensitivity, occurs in teeth as a response to certain stimuli—specifically cold and hot temperatures.
Some people experience tooth sensitivity as a temporary issue, while others struggle with chronic problems in one or more of their teeth. Tooth sensitivity has several causes and can be both uncomfortable and inconvenient; fortunately, most cases can be treated fairly easily.
Types of Tooth Sensitivity
There are two types of tooth sensitivity to cold and hot temperatures that you should know about. Both of these types of tooth sensitivity have their own unique causes, and it helps to know about each one in case your sensitivity is caused by an underlying oral health condition or concern.
Dentinal sensitivity involves the dentin, the middle layer of the tooth. If this protective layer of enamel or cementum wears away over time, the tooth’s dentin is left exposed, creating sensitivity. Dentin sensitivity can affect one or more teeth, so if you experience sensitivity throughout your whole mouth from certain temperatures, dentinal sensitivity is usually the culprit.
- Common causes of dentinal sensitivity include:
- Poor oral hygiene
- Brushing too hard
- Tooth wear over time
- Cracked fillings
- Untreated cavities
- Tooth whitening
- Receding gums that leave the tooth’s root exposed
- Overconsumption of foods and drinks that are acidic
This type of tooth sensitivity is a reaction from the tooth’s pulp, another word for the center of the tooth, which is comprised of blood vessels, connective tissue, and other cells. Pulpal sensitivity usually only affects a single tooth, and its common causes include:
- Tooth decay or infection
- Excess pressure due to grinding and clenching
- Broken or cracked teeth
- Recent filling
Tooth Sensitivity Symptoms
Most people know when they’re experiencing tooth sensitivity, mainly because the pain associated with sensitivity tends to be very uncomfortable. The pain tends to originate at the roots of the affected teeth and may range from mild to severe. If you have sensitive teeth, you may experience discomfort when:
- Consuming food and beverages that are hot, cold, sweet, or acidic
- Exposing teeth to cold air
- Drinking or exposure to cold water during routine dental cleanings
- Brushing and flossing teeth
- Using mouth rinses
It’s important to remember that there are many causes of tooth sensitivity, so if you’re experiencing ongoing pain, you should visit your dentist right away to diagnose causes and discuss treatment options.
Top Causes of Tooth Sensitivity
Besides the causes stated above, there are many other causes of tooth sensitivity you may not be aware of. Some people genetically have more sensitivity than others because they have thinner enamel. Other people, however, may wear down their enamel by brushing their teeth too hard, using a hard-bristled toothbrush, grinding their teeth, and regularly drinking acidic food and beverages.
Other causes of tooth sensitivity include:
- Gum Recession: Over time, sections of your teeth may become exposed due to receding gums. If the root of your tooth is unprotected, you will experience sensitivity in that area.
- Broken or Chipped Tooth, Tooth Decay, or Worn-Down Fillings and Crowns: All of these instances leave the dentin of the tooth exposed, creating sensitivity. For cracked teeth especially, the nerves in the pulp can become irritated or even infected if it fills with bacteria. Sensitivity related to these issues usually only affects one tooth or is only concentrated in one area of your mouth.
- Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD): This condition causes acid to climb from your stomach, through your esophagus, and into the back of your mouth, wearing down your teeth over time.
- Gastroparesis and Bulimia: These conditions result in frequent vomiting, allowing stomach acid to wear down tooth enamel.
- Gum Disease: Gingivitis—the early stages of gum disease—or periodontal disease can both cause tooth sensitivity as these conditions worsen over time.
- Too Much Mouthwash: If you’re a regular mouthwash user, you may notice tooth sensitivity caused by acids in some mouthwash products. If this is the cause of your sensitivity pain, you should consider using a neutral fluoride rinse instead.
- Eating Acidic Foods: Consuming an abundance of acidic-rich foods, like citrus, fruit juices, tomatoes, and candies, erodes the enamel on your teeth and exposes the dentin, leading to sensitivity.
- Temporary Sensitivity: If you recently received dental work, like a filling, crown, or whitening service, you may experience temporary sensitivity strictly in that area of the mouth. This type of tooth sensitivity usually subsides after a few days.
When the enamel of your teeth is worn, or the root becomes exposed due to one of these causes, you may experience a sharp, sudden, painful feeling when eating or drinking anything extremely cold or hot.
Treating Tooth Sensitivity
Fortunately, there are many ways to treat tooth sensitivity and prevent it from happening in the future. If you’re experiencing sensitivity in your teeth, whether it’s severe or not, you should address your concerns with your dentist. During the examination, your dentist can help you diagnose what is causing the sensitivity and if there are any underlying health conditions you should be concerned about. They may use dental instruments to touch each tooth and check for sensitivity, or they may order an x-ray to rule out other dental problems like cavities.
Your dentist will then determine whether the sensitivity you are experiencing requires simple treatment or a more corrective procedure to relieve pain. For mild sensitivity, there are many over-the-counter treatment options to try. These include:
- Toothpaste: Special kinds of toothpaste made for sensitive teeth can help to relieve pain over time. These kinds usually have desensitizing ingredients to help block any discomfort from reaching the tooth’s nerve.
- Alcohol-Free Mouthwashes: Compared to regular mouthwash that can increase sensitivity, alcohol-free mouthwash is much less irritating for sensitive teeth.
- Softer Toothbrushes: You should use toothbrushes that are labeled as soft-bristled to lessen the irritation on your teeth and gums. When brushing your teeth, make sure to brush as gently as possible.
- Mouthguards: Tooth sensitivity due to grinding and clenching can usually be corrected using a mouthguard while you sleep. Using a mouthguard at night helps train your jaw not to clench or grind during the day, preventing jaw pain and damage to your teeth.
If home remedies don’t work, you may need to discuss other treatment options with your dentist. They may suggest prescription toothpaste or mouthwashes, or they may apply a fluoride gel with desensitizing agents during your appointment that helps to strengthen teeth enamel.
Other serious conditions, like receding gums, may require more intense treatment options. Receding gums can usually be corrected using a gum graft, where a periodontist takes tissue from your palate and places it over the tooth’s root for protection. These types of procedures can greatly reduce sensitivity.
Preventing Tooth Sensitivity
Tooth sensitivity to hot and cold temperatures can often be prevented by maintaining good oral hygiene and visiting your dentist regularly. Your dentist can help diagnose what may be causing your tooth sensitivity during your routine dental cleanings and offer solutions to decrease pain.