Does drinking an ice cold beverage cause dental discomfort? Or do you find yourself wincing when you brush or floss? You could have what’s known as tooth sensitivity.
You don’t have to put up with the pain, however. There are things you can do to lessen tooth sensitivity and improve your oral health, says Leslie Seldin, DDS, a dentist in New York City and an associate professor of dentistry at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine.
Here’s why you could be experiencing this mouth malady — and steps you can take to find relief for sensitive teeth:
1. You brush with too much gusto.
Sometimes tooth sensitivity comes from brushing with too much force or using a hard-bristled toothbrush. Over time, you can wear down the protective layers of your teeth and expose microscopic hollow tubes or canals that lead to your dental nerves. When these tubes are exposed to extreme temperatures or acidic or sticky foods, tooth sensitivity and discomfort can result. The simplest solution is to switch to a toothbrush with softer bristles and to be gentler when brushing.
2. You eat acidic foods.
If the pathways to your nerves are exposed, acidic foods such as tomato sauce, lemon, grapefruit, kiwi, and pickles can cause pain. But avoiding these foods can help you avoid any tooth discomfort.
3. You’re a tooth-grinder.
Even though tooth enamel is the strongest substance in your body, grinding your teeth can wear down the enamel. By doing so, you expose the dentin, or the middle layer of the tooth, which contains the hollow tubes that lead to your nerves. Talk to your dentist about finding a mouth guard that can stop you from grinding. The best guards are custom-made to fit your bite, Dr. Seldin says.
4. You use tooth-whitening toothpaste.
Many manufacturers add tooth-whitening chemicals to their toothpaste formulas, and some people are more sensitive to them than others. If your toothpaste contains whitening agents, consider switching to one that doesn’t.
5. You’re a mouthwash junkie.
Like whitening toothpaste, some over-the-counter mouthwashes and rinses contain alcohol and other chemicals that can make your teeth more sensitive — especially if your dentin’s exposed. Instead, try neutral fluoride rinses or simply skip the rinse and be more diligent about flossing and brushing.
6. You’ve got gum disease.
Receding gums, which are increasingly common with age (especially if you haven’t kept up with your dental health), can cause tooth sensitivity. If gum disease or gingivitis is the problem, your dentist will come up with a plan to treat the underlying disease, and may also suggest a procedure to seal your teeth.
7. You have excessive plaque.
The purpose of flossing and brushing is to remove plaque that forms after you eat. An excessive buildup of plaque can cause tooth enamel to wear away. Again, your teeth can become more sensitive as they lose protection provided by the enamel. The solution is to practice good daily dental care and visit your dentist for cleanings every six months — or more frequently if necessary.
8. You’ve had a dental procedure.
It’s common to experience some sensitivity after a root canal, an extraction, or the placement of a crown. If symptoms don’t disappear after a short time, you should schedule another visit to your dentist, as it could be a sign of infection.
9. Your tooth is cracked.
A chipped or cracked tooth can cause pain that goes beyond tooth sensitivity. Your dentist will need to evaluate your tooth and decide the right course of treatment, such as a cap or an extraction.
10. There is decay around the edges of fillings.
As you get older, fillings can weaken and fracture or leak around the edges. It’s easy for bacteria to accumulate in these tiny crevices, which causes acid buildup and enamel breakdown. Be sure to see your dentist if you notice this type of tooth sensitivity between visits; in most cases, fillings can be easily replaced.
Tooth sensitivity is treatable. In fact, you might find that using toothpaste specifically made for sensitive teeth helps. However, these formulas don’t work for everyone.
If your sensitivity is extreme and persists no matter what steps you take, be sure to see your dentist for an evaluation. Only an office visit can determine the most likely cause of your tooth sensitivity and the best solution for your particular situation.