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Understanding Sensitive Teeth

Does the idea of a hot cup of coffee or a delicious ice cream sundae on a hot afternoon with friends make you wince? If so, you are not alone. Even breathing in cold air or eating or drinking sour or very sweet foods or beverages can hurt if you are experiencing tooth sensitivity. Up to one in eight individuals in Americans have sensitive teeth. Some never seek treatment; they just let teeth sensitivity limit their dietary choices. Some other people just let their coffee cool down or their ice cream melt, which can make both items less appealing.

Tooth sensitivity does not have to be a permanent problem. There are ways to address minimally sensitive teeth and ways to address severely sensitive teeth. Either way, you can enjoy your favorite drinks and foods again with a little help from the dentist.

It helps to understand how teeth sensitivity works. Our teeth are made of three layers. The softest innermost layer is the pulp. It contains tissue, blood vessels and the tooth’s nerves. Next, there is the dentin, which cushions the pulp. It contains tinny tunnels that connect to the pulp. Enamel is the very hard outer layer that protects the other two layers. If the enamel is worn down or has a hole in it from a cavity, hot, cold, sweet or acidic stimulus can reach the nerves and trigger sensitivity pain. You can also have sensitive teeth is your gums are receding.

Fortunately, teeth sensitivity is treatable. See your dentist to discover why one tooth or multiple teeth are sensitive. Most treatments are simple fixes that can have you enjoying your favorite foods and drinks again without a sudden jolt of pain.

What Are the Likely Causes of Sensitive Teeth?

Sensitive teeth are usually related to eroded or damaged tooth enamel or exposed roots. Common causes of these conditions include:

  • Tooth decay
  • Fractured teeth
  • Damaged dental fillings
  • Overly hard tooth brushing
  • Gum disease
  • Overindulging in acidic foods and drinks
  • Long term acid reflux
  • Overuse of teeth whitening products
  • Alcohol-based mouthwashes

What Should I Do About My Sensitive Teeth?

You should see a dentist to determine the cause, especially if just one tooth is causing you pain. It is usually a sign of a dental problem. If your teeth are generally sensitive and you don’t have receding or sensitive gums from periodontal disease, you can try several options:

  • Try using a desensitizing toothpaste. Keep in mind it will only treat the symptom, so you will still need to visit a dentist. If you use a desensitizing toothpaste, it may take weeks to see the full results. The toothpaste works by blocking the tubules in the dentin so stimuli can’t reach the nerves. While effective, desensitizing toothpaste does not treat the cause.
  • Eliminate using OTC teeth whitening products as these can cause sensitive teeth due to the bleaching ingredients.
  • Alter your tooth brushing routine and switch to a soft toothbrush which can help prevent sensitivity and reduce the chances that you will damage the enamel.
  • Limit acidic foods and drinks and use a straw to drink soft drinks and fruit juices. If these foods and beverages are allowed to stay on the teeth they can cause severe problems.
    If you want to limit your consumption of foods and drinks with a high acid content, watch out for:
    Soft drinks
    Energy drinks
    Citrus fruits and juices
    Tomato products
    Pickled products
    Sour candies
    You don’t have to give up all acidic foods. If you drink an orange juice, use a straw to limit the acid’s contact with your teeth. Eat acidic foods as part of a meal. This will help stimulate saliva production that can neutralize the acid. Rinse your mouth with water after having anything acidic, but don’t brush your teeth right away.

    Remember, the healthiest sounding drinks can have a high acid content. If you sip a certain drink all day long, check its acid content. For example, a highly carbonated, sugar free sparkling lemon water can have a high acid content from the carbonation.

  • Get treatment for your acid reflux which can wear down enamel.
  • Switch to a mouthwash that does not contain alcohol.

You should still talk to your dentist, even if you find relief. He or she may suggest a professional fluoride treatment to help rebuild your tooth enamel. Dentists can also suggest products you can use with the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance. These are safe to use and also effective.

What Are In-Office Treatments for Sensitive Teeth?

In-office treatments for teeth sensitivity typically start with a thorough dental exam, including x-rays. If you have one tooth that is very sensitive, the dentist will look for a cavity, a crack or chip that could cause your pain. Once he or she fixes the issue so the dentin isn’t exposed anymore, your tooth sensitivity will stop. You may have lingering sensitivity for a day or two, which is common after a dental procedure.

If your teeth are sensitive because you are grinding them in your sleep, a dentist can help. He or she will make a custom night guard for you. It will protect your tooth enamel from further wear.

For patients with severe gum recession from gum disease, a dentist will treat the infection first. Next, he or she may recommend a gum graft to cover the roots so they are not exposed to hot and cold temperatures.

Dentists offer fluoride treatments that are especially helpful for patients with naturally thin enamel or worn down enamel. It’s usually a varnish that is painted on and left on for a few minutes. The highly concentrated fluoride can rebuild the enamel.

Sensitive teeth are preventable, but if you have them, they are treatable. Don’t let sensitive teeth keep you from enjoying that hot cup of tea or steaming bowl of soup. See your dentist treatment options that address the cause of your sensitivity and tips to prevent it from returning.

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