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Sensitive Teeth: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, and More

Why Are My Teeth So Sensitive?

Symptoms | Causes | Diagnosed | Treatment  | Q&A | Resources

Have you ever felt pain or discomfort after a bite of ice cream or a spoonful of hot soup? If so, you’re not alone. While pain caused by hot or cold foods could be a sign of a cavity, it’s also common in people who have sensitive teeth.

Tooth sensitivity, or “dentin hypersensitivity,” is exactly what it sounds like: pain or discomfort in the teeth as a response to certain stimuli, such as hot or cold temperatures.

It may be temporary or a chronic problem, and it can affect one tooth, several teeth, or all the teeth in a single individual. It can have a number of different causes, but most cases of sensitive teeth are easily treated with a change in your oral hygiene regimen.

Symptoms of sensitive teeth

People with sensitive teeth may experience pain or discomfort as a response to certain triggers. You may feel this pain near the gumline or tops of the affected teeth. The most common triggers include:

  • hot foods and beverages
  • cold foods and beverages
  • cold air
  • sweet foods and beverages
  • acidic foods and beverages
  • cold water, especially during routine dental cleanings
  • brushing or flossing teeth
  • alcohol-based mouth rinses

Your symptoms may come and go overtime for no obvious reason. They may range from mild to intense.

What causes sensitive teeth?

Some people naturally have more sensitive teeth than others due to having thinner enamel. The enamel is the outer layer of the tooth that protects it. In many cases, the tooth’s enamel can be worn down from:

  • brushing your teeth too hard
  • using a hard toothbrush
  • grinding your teeth at night
  • regularly eating or drinking acidic foods and beverages

Sometimes, other conditions can lead to tooth sensitivity. Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), for example, can cause acid to come up from the stomach and esophagus and may wear down teeth over time. Conditions that cause frequent vomiting — including gastroparesis and bulimia — can also cause acid to wear down the enamel.

Gum recession can leave sections of the tooth exposed and unprotected, also causing sensitivity.

Tooth decay, broken teeth, chipped teeth, and worn-down fillings or crowns can leave the dentin of the tooth exposed, causing sensitivity. If this is the case, you’ll likely only feel sensitivity in one particular tooth or region in the mouth instead of the majority of teeth.

Your teeth may be temporarily sensitive following dental work like fillings, crowns, or teeth bleaching. In this case, the sensitivity will also be confined to one tooth or teeth surrounding the tooth that received dental work. This should subside after several days. If you’re completing orthodontics you may also have sensitivity due to the shifting of your teeth

How are sensitive teeth diagnosed?

If you’re experiencing tooth sensitivity for the first time, make an appointment with your dentist. They can look at the health of your teeth and check for potential problems like cavities, cracks, loose fillings, or recessed gums that could be causing the sensitivity.

Your dentist can do this during your routine dental cleaning. They may touch your teeth using dental instruments to check for sensitivity, and they might also order an X-ray on your teeth to rule out causes like cavities.

How is tooth sensitivity treated?

If your tooth sensitivity is mild, you can try over-the-counter dental treatments.

Choose a toothpaste that’s labeled as being specifically made for sensitive teeth. These kinds of toothpaste won’t have any irritating ingredients and may have desensitizing ingredients that help block the discomfort from traveling to the nerve of the tooth. You can also take the toothpaste on your finger and rub it into the tooth.

When it comes to mouthwash, choose an alcohol-free mouth rinse, as it will be less irritating to sensitive teeth.

Using softer toothbrushes and brushing more gently can also help. Soft toothbrushes will be labeled as such.

It typically takes several applications for these remedies to work. You should see an improvement within a week.

If home treatments don’t work, you can talk to your dentist about prescription toothpaste and mouthwash. They may also apply a fluoride gel or prescription-grade desensitizing agents in-office. These can help to strengthen the enamel and protect your teeth.

Treating medical conditions that cause tooth sensitivity

If underlying conditions are causing your tooth sensitivity, you’ll want to treat it before it causes the enamel to wear down and damage the teeth.

GERD can be treated with acid reducers, and bulimia should be treated under a supervising psychiatrist.

Receding gums can be treated by brushing more gently and maintaining good oral hygiene. In cases of intense sensitivity and discomfort due to severe gum recession, your dentist may recommend using a gum graft. This procedure involves taking tissue from the palate and placing it over the root to protect the tooth.

You can train yourself to stop clenching or grinding your teeth by being mindful not to do so during the day. Reducing stress and caffeine before bed can also help prevent you from grinding your teeth at night. If this doesn’t work, you can use a nightguard at night to prevent the grinding from damaging your teeth.

What’s the outlook for tooth sensitivity?

If your tooth sensitivity is making it difficult to eat, talk to your dentist about finding a solution. There are many kinds of toothpaste and mouthwashes designed for sensitive teeth available over the counter.

If these aren’t effective, talk to your dentist about prescription toothpaste and mouthwash. You should also make an appointment with your dentist if you experience symptoms of cavities or potential root damage so you can get treatment quickly and prevent complications. These symptoms may include:

  • spontaneous tooth pain that occurs without an obvious cause
  • tooth sensitivity localized to one tooth
  • sharper pain instead of milder pain
  • staining on the surface of your teeth
  • pain when biting down or chewing

Common Questions & Answers

Why are my teeth sensitive all of a sudden?

Tooth sensitivity is caused by worn tooth enamel or exposed nerves in your teeth. When you eat or drink something with an extremely low or high temperature, you may feel a sudden, sharp flash of pain.

What is a natural remedy for sensitive teeth?

Honey is an antibacterial agent and can be used for wound management. Honey can help to speed healing and reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation. To reduce pain from sensitive teeth, rinse your mouth with warm water and a spoonful of honey. This rinse will promote oral healing.

Is having sensitive teeth bad?

Having a sensitive tooth is a pretty common problem, but what does it mean? Teeth that are sensitive to cold are the most common and could be caused by receding gums. Having teeth that are sensitive to heat, is more of a serious concern.

What causes sensitivity in a tooth?

Tooth sensitivity occurs when the layer of a tooth underneath the enamel (called the dentin) or the layer covering the root (called cementum) is exposed along the gum line due to receding gums. The exposed areas respond to hot, cold, sometimes sweet or spicy foods, and trigger pain.

Is tooth sensitivity a sign of a cavity?

Hot and cold sensitivity or sensitivity that lingers after eating hot or cold food could be a sign that you have a cavity. When the enamel on your tooth starts to wear away, it can affect the dentin, which is the hard tissue layer below the enamel.

Trusted Sources & Resources

Sensitive teeth: What treatments are available? – Mayo Clinic

What Can You Do About Sensitive Teeth? – WebMD

Sensitive Teeth – Heat and Cold Sensitivity – American Dental Association

What Causes Sensitive Teeth? | Colgate® Oral Care

What Is Tooth Sensitivity? – Colgate Professional

Sensitive Teeth: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention |Oral B

10 Biggest Causes of Tooth Sensitivity | Everyday Health


When in doubt, check it out

If you’re unsure of your health status, have multiple health problems or are pregnant, speak with your doctor before starting a new dental procedure. Working with your doctor ahead of time can help you plan the medical/dental treatment that’s right for you. And that’s a good first step on your path to oral health.

Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding a medical condition. Never disregard or delay seeking professional medical advice or treatment because of something you have read on the Sherwood Dental website.

Reviewed By:

Dr. Rakesh Patel B.Sc., DDS on April 1, 2020