An ice cream cone on a hot July day can be a tasty way to beat the heat, but if you’re one of the millions of people who have sensitive teeth, then that cold treat can be a real pain.
So, what causes your teeth to fear the sweet embrace of cold, delicious treats—or, on the other hand, a good cup of hot coffee?
An expert from the Texas A&M College of Dentistry explains what causes sensitive teeth and how to strengthen your pearly whites.
What causes sensitive teeth?
Teeth are complicated, and as we use them, we wear down our enamel—which protects our teeth.
“When the inner layer of the tooth, called the dentin, is exposed to the oral environment, there is access to the dentinal tubules,” said Jane Cotter, RDH, MS, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Dentistry.
“Hydrodynamic fluid movement, caused by stimuli within the dentinal tubules, stimulates the nerve and that causes a pain response.”
The most common factor related to sensitive teeth is gum recession. When the gum begins to recede, the tooth’s root becomes exposed, resulting in sensitivity.
Other causes of sensitive teeth are toothbrush abrasion, periodontal therapy (treatment for periodontal disease), tooth decay or faulty restorations, excessive grinding or excessive bleaching.
“What you eat and drink can also cause your teeth to become more sensitive,” Cotter said.
“Sodas—both diet and regular—energy drinks, fruit juice, wine and coffee can all worsen your teeth sensitivity. Acidic foods, such as citrus fruits, are also active in this sense, but less than with liquids.”
Sensitive teeth and the chills
Despite what it may feel like, the cold weather is actually affecting your sinuses, and not your teeth, at least not directly.
“Changes in atmospheric pressure can cause pressure in the sinuses that are located above the upper posterior teeth,” Cotter said.
“The sinus pressure can lower the pain threshold for these teeth making them more sensitive to external stimuli—like cold water or air.”
This can make everyday activities, such as running, difficult to do in cold weather without feeling some pain in your mouth. However, luckily there are ways to offset your sensitive teeth and conquer the elements once again.
Treating sensitive teeth
Having sensitive teeth can be really dull. Not being able to enjoy an ice cream cone, a cold-weather workout or your favorite whitening toothpaste can be inconvenient. Luckily, there are ways to de-sensitize your teeth.
“There are several over-the-counter toothpastes that have potassium nitrate or calcium phosphate that can help with sensitivity when used daily,” Cotter said.
“The use of fluoride gels and rinses are also helpful for sensitivity. Be sure you’re using a soft bristle toothbrush or mechanical toothbrush to help control the pressure when brushing.”
If you can’t shake off your sensitive teeth at home using products from your local drug store, there are ways to possibly improve your sensitive teeth at your dental health care provider’s office.
“Ask your health care provider about products that can close the open dentinal tubes or desensitize the nerve endings,” Cotter said. “If necessary, the sensitive area may be restored with filling material.”
Talking with your health care provider
Sensitive teeth may seem like a minor inconvenience, but Cotter stresses the importance of being candid with your dental health provider about any changes or sensitive areas you notice.
The more information you can give your provider, the better. Keep track of duration, type of pain, triggers, location, and any other detail regarding your sensitive teeth that can help your provider assess the situation.
“Tooth sensitivity is an indication of a change in the tooth or supporting tissue,” Cotter said.
“Whether it’s tooth decay, infection or dentin hypersensitivity, it should be addressed. If it’s causing you to change your normal habits—such as what or how you eat—then intervention is needed.”