Sensitive teeth: Do hot and cold bother you?
If a taste of ice cream or a sip of coffee creates tooth pain, you may have sensitive teeth. But don't worry. This common condition, which affects at least 45 million Americans, is treatable.
What is tooth sensitivity?
When the tooth's hard enamel wears down or gums recede, tiny microscopic tubes located in the layer of tooth below the enamel are exposed. Tooth sensitivity is caused by the stimulation of cells within these tubes, causing a short, sharp pain when the area is exposed to hot or cold temperatures through food and beverages — or even by the air.
Another cause of tooth sensitivity is cracks in the tooth's enamel surface. Extreme temperature changes cause teeth to expand and contract. Over time, microscopic cracks may develop, allowing hot or cold sensations to seep through to the nerves beneath the tooth enamel.
What you can do
You can manage the pain of sensitive teeth with these simple steps:
- Change your brand of toothpaste. Some toothpastes increase tooth sensitivity, including whitening toothpastes that lighten or remove stains from enamel, and tartar-control toothpastes containing sodium pyrophosphate. There are toothpastes designed for people with sensitive teeth. Be aware that these products typically must be used on a regular basis for at least a month before you notice any therapeutic benefits. (You may see benefits more quickly if you massage the special toothpaste onto your gums with your finger after brushing your teeth with it.)
- Take it easy on your teeth. Avoid using hard-bristled toothbrushes and brushing your teeth too vigorously, which can wear down the tooth's root surface and expose sensitive spots. Take a good look at your toothbrush. If the bristles are flattened or pointing in multiple directions, you're putting too much pressure on your teeth.
- Skip the marinara sauce. Some foods or drinks can aggravate sensitive teeth. Avoid or limit acidic items (for example, food or drink with a high concentration of tomatoes, oranges or lemons).
When to see a dentist
If a tooth is highly sensitive for more than three or four days and reacts to both hot and cold temperatures, it’s best to ask your dentist to take a closer look. Sometimes sensitivity may actually be a sign of a cavity or infected tooth pulp. Be sure to tell the dentist when the pain started and if there is anything (such as applying a warm compress) that gives you relief from the pain.
If you are diagnosed with sensitive teeth, your dentist can prescribe one of a variety of treatment options, such as in-office treatments (applying a desensitizing agent or a protective coating to the teeth) and take-home products for personal use. If your tooth sensitivity is severe and persistent or it cannot be treated by other means, your dentist may recommend root canal treatment.
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The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.