You take a drink of iced tea, bite down on a candy bar, or slurp some hot soup and the electric stinging sensation in one or more of your teeth sends you flying out of your seat. You’ve got “sensitive teeth,” a rather mild name for what can be a wildly uncomfortable condition.
So what’s going on? Why do your teeth react to hot, cold, sweet, or sour, and sometimes even to pressure? Dentists have to play detective to determine what’s causing a patient’s discomfort, since teeth become sensitive for many different reasons, from trauma to dental disease, which can destroy tooth pulp, requiring a root-canal procedure to relieve the pain.
One or more teeth can become sensitive to even slight pressure if it has been “bruised” or otherwise traumatized — by your accidentally biting down on a popcorn kernel, for example. Often, teeth feel sensitive after they’ve been cleaned, filled, or otherwise worked on at the dentist’s office.
Sometimes this kind of sensitivity can take weeks or even months to go away. In other cases, people can cause tooth sensitivity by habitually grinding their teeth or clamping their jaws tightly shut. This type of sensitivity to pressure isn’t something to worry about if it happens once or twice and goes away in a day or two. The tooth or teeth simply need time to recover from the trauma. It’s when the pressure sensitivity is persistent that you should suspect something like a break, crack, or decayed tooth and should see your dentist.
Sensitivity to temperature usually means teeth have been compromised in some way. Sometimes it means one or more teeth are
hitting too soon or too hard because they have moved out of place slightly, changing how their surfaces meet to form your bite. These shifts may be caused by habits such as thumb sucking, or they can occur because the bone structure of one or more teeth changes.
By far the most common cause of tooth sensitivity to temperature and sweet or sour foods is exposed dentin, the hardened tissue just beneath the tooth’s enamel that contains microscopic nerve fibers. Dentin can become exposed as a result of dental decay, food or toothbrush abrasion, or gum recession. Regardless of the cause, exposed nerves make the teeth sensitive.
If you develop sensitivity in one or more teeth, first see your dentist to determine the cause. Then, if your sensitivity is caused by simple enamel abrasion or by normal gum recession, try the following home remedies for relief.
Bring on the desensitizing toothpaste. Unfortunately, widespread tooth sensitivity due to enamel abrasion or gum-line recession can’t be treated with dental fillings. Instead, try brushing with a desensitizing toothpaste, which you can buy over the counter. These special toothpastes contain ingredients that diminish sensitivity by filling channels (known as tubules) in the dentin.
Try putting some of the toothpaste on your finger or on a cotton swab and spreading it over the sensitive spots before you go to bed. Spit, but don’t rinse. Within a few weeks, your teeth should begin to feel less sensitive.
Try a fluoride rinse. Fluoride rinses, available without a prescription at your local pharmacy or in the dental section of grocery stores, can help decrease sensitivity, especially for people plagued with decay problems. Use it once a day. Swish it around in your mouth, then spit it out.
Sometimes, people with sensitive teeth need a stronger fluoride rinse or gel than the ones available over the counter. For example, some treatments for gum disease, such as root planing (which reduces plaque), can leave sensitive teeth even more sensitive than usual. In such situations, dentists can apply a fluoride gel that helps relieve the problem.
Keep your teeth clean. Plaque, the white gummy substance that forms on teeth, produces an acid that irritates teeth, especially if your choppers are naturally sensitive. Wage a daily attack against plaque by brushing at least twice, preferably right after eating and especially before bed, and flossing at least once.
Use a soft toothbrush. Often, people actually cause tooth sensitivity by brushing with too much force and/or brushing with a hard-bristled brush, which can damage the protective tooth enamel. When the gum-line recedes (often as a natural part of the aging process), exposed dentin becomes even more vulnerable to toothbrush abrasion. Use a brush with the softest bristles you can find, and apply only a small amount of pressure when brushing (actually, a lighter touch also allows the bristles to move more freely and do their job more effectively than when you press too hard).
Say, “Enough!” to snuff. Chewing tobacco, also known as “dip” or “snuff,” is a popular habit in some groups, especially among many male teenagers. They mistakenly believe it’s less harmful than smoking cigarettes. However, in addition to causing mouth cancers, chewing tobacco causes the gums to recede, a major cause of gum sensitivity and decay. Just as there is no safe cigarette, there is no safe tobacco.
Habits like sucking on hard candy, while certainly healthier than chewing snuff, can also cause enamel abrasion and tooth sensitivity.
For more information about sensitive teeth and how to combat them, try the following links:
To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
To learn the best way to wash out your mouth, read How Oral Hygiene Works.
To understand what can go wrong with your teeth, read How Dental Disease Works.
For a whiter smile, check out our Home Remedies for Whiter Teeth.
To understand how matter builds up on your teeth, read Home Remedies for Tartar and Plaque.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.
When to See a Doctor About Tooth Sensitivity
While you can often self-treat generalized tooth sensitivity, see your dentist if:
Your teeth are persistently sensitive to pressure.
A single tooth is persistently sensitive, which could indicate that its pulp is infected or dying.
Sensitivity doesn’t decrease after two weeks of using desensitizing toothpaste.
You have dental pain that lasts more than an hour.
The gums around a sensitive tooth change color.
You have any obvious decay.