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Sensitive Teeth: What Should I Know?

Closeup of a woman squeezing her mouth area. Sensitive teeth may be the reason.

Most of us have experienced sensitive teeth at one point or another. Sometimes the sensitivity is momentary or temporary; but on occasion, the discomfort lasts. What causes sensitive teeth? How can you avoid this issue, and when should you seek help from your dentist? Dr. Chase Garris, DDS has answers.

What are the causes of sensitive teeth?

Sensitivity can result from many causes. It occurs when a tooth’s dentinal tubules or cementum, which are normally protected by enamel (the outermost layer of teeth), are exposed in a way they previously were not. Whitening products, receding gums, cavities or tooth decay, gingivitis, periodontal disease, or a foreign body (such as a tiny piece of popcorn) lodged in the gums can all contribute to sensitive teeth. Some people experience sensitivity because of clenching, which can, over time, expose the root structure of a tooth. Since the root structure is not designed to withstand such exposure, it can become quite sensitive when this happens.

Simple diagram showing the layers of a tooth

Does everyone have sensitive teeth?

A certain amount of sensitivity is normal. Most people will feel some discomfort if they hold something extremely cold against their teeth for a few seconds. Other people are more sensitive due to the reduced thickness of their enamel. Enamel itself has no nerve sensation; this comes from the second layer of the teeth, the dentin. The less enamel you have, the more sensitive your teeth will be.

What are the signs that I should see my dentist?

See your dentist right away if you have any of these signs:

  • Pain becomes constant, though nothing is touching the teeth
  • Sensitivity occurs along with obvious tooth decay
  • Sensitivity occurs along with signs of infection, such as swelling, drainage, or an unpleasant taste or odor

Are certain age groups more susceptible to sensitive teeth?

Many patients with sensitive teeth are younger to middle-aged folks. As we get older, our nerves recede inside our teeth, and the teeth become less sensitive. Sometimes in older patients, the nerve won’t respond to cold, even if the tooth is still alive. When that happens, the nerve has receded to the point where the cold can’t reach it. Children rarely complain of cold sensitivity, but when they do, it’s usually a sign of a cavity.

How can I avoid sensitive teeth?

Make sure your toothpaste contains fluoride. Fluoride is helpful in creating a protective barrier for tubules, and helps to rebuild your enamel. Some foods and drinks, especially those that produce acid, can break down that enamel layer and increase the chances of sensitivity, but fluoride toothpaste helps. During cleaning visits, we may apply topical fluoride varnish, and that can help too.

If your teeth are sensitive, avoid prescription whitening products and over-the-counter whitening products that contain hydrogen peroxide. Whitening products with carbamide are better because they contain a desensitizer. Certain toothpastes also contain a desensitizer, and that can help with minor tooth sensitivity. The desensitizing agent is potassium nitrate; look for it in the toothpaste’s list of active ingredients.

Four colorful sticks of gelato: pistachio green, mango orange, strawberry pink, and butterscotch beige

Besides cold, what else causes sensitivity?

Sensitivity to cold foods and drinks is the most common. Hot foods and drinks can also cause sensitivity; this indicates tooth decay. If very sweet foods cause your teeth discomfort, it’s a sign of early tooth decay. This is a common complaint for people whose cavities do not yet require a root canal, and a warning sign that you should see your dentist promptly.

What can I do to help my young children avoid sensitive teeth?

Help your children remember to brush twice daily with a fluoride-based toothpaste to protect their teeth, and be sure they visit the dentist regularly. Your child’s dentist or hygienist may apply a fluoride varnish during regular visits.