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Are your teeth feeling a little touchy these days? If your chompers hurt after you bite into a giant scoop of ice cream or your pearly whites are feeling achy in general, you may have sensitive teeth.
Tooth sensitivity — aka dentin hypersensitivity — is when you experience discomfort or pain as a result of something that interacts with your teeth.
Don’t just assume tooth sensitivity is no big deal. It could be due to something more serious, like a cavity or gum disease. The good news is there are things you can do to lessen the pain. Once you rule out other factors, changes to your oral hygiene routine or a trip to the dentist can help.
What exactly does it feel like when you have sensitive teeth? It can feel like a dull, tingling, or sharp sensation at the root of the affected tooth. The pain can come and go at any time. Usually the pain is triggered by something.
Common tooth sensitivity triggers:
- hot foods and drinks
- cold foods and drinks
- cold air
- sweet foods and drinks
- acidic foods and drinks
- cold water
- brushing or flossing your teeth
- teeth whitening products
- alcohol-based mouthwashes
What’s making your teeth so dang touchy? It might be your brushing habits, or something more serious could be going on.
If the protective enamel of your teeth gets worn down, the dentin is exposed. That means liquids and gases can reach your tooth pulp, which is full of blood vessels and nerve endings (hence the ouchies).
Let’s break down some causes of sensitive teeth:
1. Brushing too hard. Brushing your teeth too vigorously can damage your gums and enamel. Ease up on your force when brushing your teeth.
2. Consuming acidic foods and drinks. Your obsession with lemons, coffee, and some dairy products can cause your teeth to be sensitive.
3. Bleaching your teeth. Who doesn’t love pearly white teeth? But too much bleaching can leave your teeth sore. Make sure to follow the instructions on all whitening products, and don’t use them all the time.
4. Shrinking gums. Sensitive teeth can be a sign of gum disease. Have you noticed your gums creeping farther away from the biting surfaces of your teeth? When gums recede, the root becomes exposed, so the tooth is at risk for infection or loss — and a world of pain.
5. Gum disease. Gum disease can be a cause of tooth sensitivity. See a dentist to determine whether your sensitive teeth are a result of gum disease.
7. Grinding your teeth. If you’re a grinder, you could be chipping away at the enamel on your teeth. This also exposes dentin and can lead to pain.
8. Recent dental work. Your teeth may start hurting if you’ve recently had a filling or other dental work. All that drilling and other agitation can cause inflammation — and therefore pain — inside the tooth. It can last a few days or weeks.
If you’re sure that sensitivity is the cause of your tooth pain, there are a few things you can do to ease the pain.
- Take note of which foods or drinks cause sensitivity. Avoid them if possible.
- Rinse your mouth out with water after eating acidic foods or drinks. This can help you avoid wearing down the tooth enamel further.
- Avoid brushing your teeth right after you eat acidic foods. Brushing too soon may remove more of the enamel.
- Use an over-the-counter (OTC) oral numbing gel or ointment. This can temporarily lessen the pain.
- Take an OTC pain reliever. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may offer some relief.
Oral hygiene changes
- Brush with gentle, circular strokes on your teeth and gums. Nix the heavy scrubbing back and forth, and stop pushing the toothbrush aggressively.
- Opt for a toothbrush labeled for sensitive teeth. These are softer than standard toothbrushes, which is perfect if you’re a hardcore robo-brusher who can’t lay off the force.
- Choose a toothpaste for sensitive teeth. This can help prevent triggers from reaching the nerve of the tooth.
- Try an alcohol-free mouth rinse. This may also be less irritating.
- Floss once every day. Make sure you’re going gentle on your gums and teeth.
- Avoid whitening toothpastes and products. Alternate them with traditional toothpastes or go for a more natural whitening method.
- Prescription-strength toothpaste and mouthwash. Your dentist can hook you up with some stronger products for sensitive teeth.
- Fluoride gel or prescription-grade desensitizing agents. Your dentist can apply these in the office to strengthen your enamel and better protect your teeth. (In addition to helping you prevent cavities, fluoride can minimize pain from tooth sensitivity.)
- Dental procedure to cover exposed nerve endings. This may involve covering your teeth with a resin coating to protect any exposed nerve endings that make them super sensitive.
- Surgical gum graft. If you have receding gums, this can help with the pain.
- Filling or root canal. If the problem is tooth decay or an infection, this should fix the pain.
- Repairs for any cracked teeth, crowns, or fillings. Sealing any cracks will prevent irritants from reaching the dentin on your teeth.
Think you have sensitive teeth and want to rule out any dental probs? If you’re in serious pain or you’ve tried at-home treatments with no relief, it’s time to visit the dentist.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your dental hygienist and dentist about any tooth sensitivity at your usual cleanings.
Other red flag symptoms to bring up to your dentist:
- random tooth pain
- just one sensitive tooth
- sharp pain
- stained teeth
- pain when you bite down or chew
If your dentist suspects something is going on, they can do a visual exam and an X-ray to rule out other causes of tooth sensitivity such as a cavity, chipped tooth, broken crown, or worn filling.
Having sore teeth sucks, regardless of the cause. Make sure you determine that you don’t have another problem, like a cavity. If you don’t, you may just have sensitive teeth.
You can likely find relief by avoiding things that you know cause you pain, changing up your oral care products, or asking your dentist for some prescription-strength fixes.
If all else fails, be wary of chugging that ice-cold drink and go easy on your teeth when you brush them.