Teeth sensitivity is the feeling of a sudden sharp brief wave of pain when eating or drinking cold foods and drinks. Sensitivity can also be stimulated by cooler temperatures, such as sharp inhaling of air through your mouth, and in serious cases – even speech (1).
Tooth sensitivity happens when the inner layer of a tooth (the dentin) loses it’s protective covering, allowing hot, cold, or acidic drinks to stimulate the nerves that are behind this dentin layer (2).
Teeth sensitivity is a very common symptom in dentistry and you will probably have experienced it at some point in your life; it’s also a side effect of many dental diseases including tooth cavities and gum disease.
Why does tooth sensitivity happen?
Tooth sensitivity has many causes such as:
Cavities and tooth decay
Fractured or cracked teeth
Worn tooth enamel
Old and worn fillings
Exposed tooth roots as a result of aggressive tooth brushing
Exposed tooth roots as a result of recession and gum disease
Sensitivity in the teeth may last a couple of days for some people, while it may be a more chronic problem lasting many years for others.
Though teeth sensitivity may indicate a more serious dental problem, it can also just be a temporary symptom, lasting only a couple of days, warranting no further dental treatment.
If you think that you are suffering from painful teeth sensitivity lasting for more than several weeks, preventing you from properly brushing your teeth or enjoying certain foods and drinks, then I strongly advise you to visit your dentist as soon as possible – as the sensitivity you are experiencing is probably due to more serious dental problems that require professional treatment at a dentist’s office.
Maintaining good oral hygiene is always the most important step in treating almost any dental problem, including sensitive teeth – but below I mention 10 tips that you could try that may help reduce the discomfort of teeth sensitivity.
1. Brush twice a day and floss once a day
As I mentioned above, ensuring good oral hygiene by making sure that you clean your teeth adequately is the first and most important step in combating teeth sensitivity. Brushing your teeth with toothpastes containing at least 1450 ppm fluoride is considered as the first line of therapy in treating teeth sensitivity (3).
Make sure to use a soft-bristled toothbrush when brushing with these toothpastes to reduce teeth sensitivity. Also, try to reduce water to a minimum when brushing your teeth. Don’t wet the toothpaste after smearing it on your toothbrush, and after brushing your teeth; don’t rinse your mouth very strongly with water to try and keep the fluoride on your teeth surfaces.
Brushing twice a day and flossing once a day reduces the risk of developing caries, keeps your teeth healthy and clean, and more importantly – keeps your gums healthy and free of any inflammation so that they cover the sensitive root surface of your teeth.
2. Make sure you’re brushing your teeth properly
You’d be surprised to know that a large number of people are actually brushing their teeth incorrectly, and unknowingly causing damage to their teeth such as gum recession and tooth wear. This kind of incorrect brushing usually comes from brushing too long, aggressively, or frequently, and will increase the risk of teeth sensitivity.
Proper teeth brushing is extremely important, not only to reduce teeth sensitivity, but to reduce and prevent further more serious dental problems.
In general, you should be using soft circular brush strokes (not in an aggressive horizontal motion) and make sure to take your time when brushing – you should be spending at least 2 minutes brushing your teeth.
3. Gum Recession: visit your dentist to rule out gum disease
In a dental office, when a patient complains of teeth sensitivity when drinking cold water (or even sharply inhaling air through their mouth), this is a huge sign to the dentist that the patient is suffering from gum disease, and more specifically gum recession.
Gum recession is usually an indicator of a more advanced stage of gum disease such as periodontitis.
Periodontitis is the scientific term for “gum disease” and means inflammation of the gums and the deeper structures around a tooth, including the root and bone around it.
The treatment for such cases is more complex and would require professional dental cleaning with deep root cleaning. More serious cases might even require gum grafting.
You may have a cavity and the pain associated with teeth sensitivity when drinking cold water is a symptom of that. Such dental conditions need to be professionally diagnosed and treated by a dentist at a dental clinic.
Your dentist may be able to reach a diagnosis just with a clinical exam, but most probably an x-ray and other diagnostic tests will be needed.
When a tooth develops a cavity, the nerve inside the tooth pulp becomes inflamed, this is known as reversible pulpitis. One of the most common symptoms of reversible pulpitis is excessive tooth sensitivity towards trigger foods and drinks that are especially cold and sweet.
A tooth that has a cavity will need to be treated by a dentist – your dentist will remove the cavity and bacteria from your affected tooth, and then proceed to place a filling.
Bigger cavities may require a crown. Cavities which are deeper and have already infected the nerve and blood supply of the tooth will first require a root canal treatment before a filling can be done.
5. Avoid trigger foods
Certain foods, such as cold, sweet, and acidic foods and drinks can induce tooth pain to those suffering from teeth sensitivity. Acidic foods, such as citrus fruits (like lemons and oranges) wear and “etch” the outer layer of teeth, the enamel. This then exposes the inner layer (dentin) causing temporary teeth sensitivity.
Ice cream and cold water may also cause teeth pain, especially if you’re suffering from unhealthy gums and recession.
Foods that cause teeth sensitivity:
- Citrus fruits (e.g. lemons and oranges)
- Soft Drinks (e.g. Cola), both acidic and sweet, soft drinks are a huge trigger for teeth sensitivty.
- Hot Coffee
- Ice Cream
- Sticky sweets and candy
Avoiding these foods or at least reducing them, may be inconvenient, but will save you from the brief pain accompanied with teeth sensitivity.
When drinking cold or sweet drinks, try to use a straw and immediately swallow to limit the contact of the cold drink with your teeth to a maximum, preventing any teeth sensitivity and discomfort.
6. Be careful about teeth whitening
Teeth whitening has recently become an even bigger sensation in dentistry and cosmetics, and it’s popularity is still growing. With the huge number of different options to obtain a whiter smile, from whitening strips done at the comfort of your own home to professional in-office teeth whitening, teeth whitening (or teeth bleaching) has almost become a routine activity for some people.
Though teeth whitening can yield very positive results in terms of smile brightening, it does come with the very serious side-effect of teeth sensitivity. This is because teeth whitening products usually contain an abrasive (mostly hydrogen peroxide) that acts on the outer layer of the teeth, thinning it down slightly and removing debris and stain-causing particles, exposing the sensitive inner layer.
Teeth sensitivity caused by teeth whitening usually occurs during the whitening treatment itself and may last several days after, but is considered only as a temporary condition.
It’s widely regarded as a very common side effect of teeth bleaching and is an accepted risk by many. Desensitizing gels are also available which provide a protective insulating layer to the teeth that will reduce any pain and discomfort.
7. Use high fluoride toothpaste
If you’re complaining of teeth pain due to teeth sensitivity, you may consider using a toothpaste that is high in fluoride for 2 weeks. Fluoride induces remineralization in enamel (the outer layer of the tooth) and is extremely important for healthy teeth formation.
Some places in the world include fluoride in drinking tap water due to its health properties. As I mentioned earlier, most regular toothpastes have at least 1450 ppm fluoride content, high fluoride toothpastes however, have a much higher content (reaching up to 5000 ppm fluoride) thereby increasing the amount of fluoride.
Using a high fluoride toothpaste is usually prescribed by dentists to patients with a high risk of developing caries, such as patients with dry mouth or who wear braces.
If you don’t see any results after 2 weeks of using a high fluoride toothpaste, then stop using it, as the concentration of fluoride in these toothpastes is quite high.
After using such a toothpaste, try not to eat or drink anything for at least 30 minutes to maximise the affect of fluoride on your teeth (4).
8. Be aware of any other medical conditions that could cause teeth sensitivity
Bulimic patients, those suffering from gastro-esophageal reflex disorder (GERD), or patients that tend to throw up frequently, have a high chance of developing teeth sensitivity.
This is because the acid in the stomach may regularly come into contact with teeth surfaces in these patients, causing tooth wear and erosion to the enamel leading to sensitivity.
Similarly, people who clench and grind their teeth at night (bruxism) also may complain of teeth sensitivity as that medical condition causes tooth abrasion and similarly affects the tooth enamel, leading to sensitivity and possibly teeth pain.
Visit your doctor to rule out any diseases or disorders that could be affecting your oral health causing teeth sensitivity.
9. Eat cheese!
Good news for the cheese lovers out there, cheese has been clinically proven to boost calcium levels in teeth, and greatly helps in combating tooth decay.
I’m not saying to eat cheese all day, (unless you want to!) but eating a small piece of cheese after a meal would be extremely beneficial for your teeth and help in reducing any present teeth sensitivity.
10. Stimulate saliva production
Saliva has many important components and functions which ultimately help to wash away bacteria and food, and strengthens tooth enamel, it’s actually extremely important for healthy oral hygiene.
People with reduced salivary flow have a seriously increased risk of developing caries, and saliva helps combat early tooth decay.
Saliva flow helps to reduce tooth sensitivity, so consult your dentist to make sure you’re not suffering from impaired or reduced salivary flow.
You can also chew sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva production – but make sure that you aren’t chewing for long periods of time as chewing gum can be harmful to your jaw.