By Korin Miller – Self
Eating ice cream should be a pretty damn wonderful experience. Sipping a steaming cup of coffee should be equal parts restorative and energizing. But if you have sensitive teeth, pain comes along and ruins the party.
“[Tooth sensitivity] is a sign that something in your mouth needs to be addressed,” Susan Maples, D.D.S., author of Blabber Mouth! 77 Secrets Only Your Mouth Can Tell You to Live a Healthier, Happier, Sexier Life, tells SELF. Read on to learn more about common causes of sensitive teeth, plus how to solve them.
- The protective layers of your teeth are more worn out than your favorite pair of jeans.
Enamel, the outermost layer of your teeth, covers your crowns, aka the parts of your teeth above your gum line, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). It’s supposed to help shield the sensitive innards of your teeth from things that can cause sensitivity. In a similar vein, a substance called cementum protects your teeth’s roots, which contain the pulpy center that holds blood vessels and nerves.
In a phenomenon known as dental erosion, your enamel and cementum can get worn away. This may eventually compromise the underlying dentin, which is a tissue containing hollow canals called tubules. At that point, the tubules can allow hot, cold, sweet, sticky, or acidic foods and drinks to reach the nerves and cells inside your teeth, resulting in a shudder-inducing zing of pain.
Dental erosion usually happens when too much acid (like from soda, acid reflux, or excessive vomiting) damages your teeth over time, the ADA says. You can’t reverse it, so it’s a good idea to take care of your teeth by avoiding acidic beverages, or at least using a straw when possible, says the ADA.
Some of the organization’s other recommendations are centered on the fact that, interestingly enough, dairy products like milk and yogurt may help ward off erosion due to their calcium and phosphate. To that end, the ADA recommends drinking milk when you have acidic meals or beverages, or rinsing your mouth with milk after vomiting. You can also do this with water. (Of course, if you’re throwing up regularly for any reason, that’s a sign to see a doctor for help.)
The ADA also recommends waiting an hour after you eat or drink something acidic, then brushing your teeth with a soft-bristle toothbrush and fluoride toothpaste. This allows your saliva a little time to try to buffer against and remove the acids, and the fluoride toothpaste can help strengthen your teeth as a bonus.
If you do end up eroding your enamel, your dentist may be able to apply a paste or sealant to help patch up the area, Mark S. Wolff, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care at the New York University College of Dentistry, tells SELF. Even so, you want to do what you can to prevent that from being necessary in the first place.
- A cavity (dun dun dun) has burrowed down into the dentin of your teeth.
Cavities, also known as tooth decay or dental caries, are little holes in the surface of your teeth, according to the Mayo Clinic. They can arise due to plaque, a relentless bacterial film that feeds on food and drink debris. If plaque isn’t removed often enough via brushing and flossing, it can create small openings in your enamel.
Without prompt treatment, cavities can actually drill past the enamel of your teeth and into the dentin, where they can cause some serious sensitivity, Dr. Maples says. If this is what’s behind your sensitive teeth, your dentist is going to need to take action to make it better. “The only way to relieve the pain is to mechanically restore the defect,” Julie Cho, D.M.D., a general dentist in New York City, tells SELF.
If you catch the cavity early enough, your dentist may be able to reverse it with a fluoride treatment in a liquid, gel, foam, or varnish form, says the Mayo Clinic. Otherwise, you might need a filling, a root canal, or a dental crown, depending on how much damage there is. A severe cavity might even require extracting the tooth in question, but that prospect becomes way less likely if you see your dentist as soon as you experience cavity symptoms like sensitivity.
- Your gums have receded, leaving delicate nerves exposed.
Your gums have the important job of helping to keep your teeth in place. But sometimes, in what’s known as gum recession, they stealthily pull away from where you expect them to be, leaving you vulnerable to pain and sensitivity. It’s basically like your gums are ghosting your teeth.
A few things can contribute to gum recession, like having gum disease, brushing your teeth too hard or using a hard-bristled toothbrush, sustaining a gum injury, smoking, or even just genetics, Dr. Wolff says.
Treatment for gum recession ultimately depends on what caused it in the first place, but using a softer toothbrush (or brushing more gently) may help, Dr. Wolff says. You may even be able to get a gum graft, which is when your dentist takes a thin piece of gum tissue from one spot and attaches it to the spot where your gums have receded.
- You have a cracked tooth.
If the mere thought of having a cracked tooth makes you wince, your instincts are right on target. A cracked tooth can expose your tooth’s pulp, the soft tissue that contains nerves and blood vessels, leaving it open to irritation, Dr. Maples says. One major sign you’re dealing with this is a sharp pain when you bite down. Unfortunately, tooth sensitivity can also come with the territory.
Chewing hard foods, being hit in the mouth, and simply having brittle teeth may all lead to having a cracked tooth, Dr. Maples says. So can grinding and clenching your teeth, says Dr. Cho.
If your tooth is cracked, your dentist may try fixing the issue with bonding (putting a substance called resin in the crack) or a root canal to remove the infected tissue. If you grind or clench your teeth, they may prescribe a mouth guard to wear at night to prevent pain, Dr. Cho says.
- Your teeth are rioting after an intense bleaching session.
A whiter smile isn’t the only thing you can get after a bleaching session—it can also leave you with sensitive teeth. If you bleach your teeth occasionally before a big event, or just a few times a year, you might escape this side effect. But if you do it regularly, use a kit that’s too strong for your teeth, or get them professionally whitened, the peroxide in the bleach can wear down your teeth’s enamel. This can aggravate the tubules in your dentin, causing sensitivity, according to Dr. Wolff.
In many cases, desensitizing toothpaste (which works to block transmission of sensation from your tooth’s surface to the nerve) can help, the ADA says. But if experimenting with that for a while doesn’t help, see your dentist. They may be able to apply a sealant to block off access to those tubules, Dr. Wolff says. With any luck, you’ll finally be able to enjoy hot drinks, sweet desserts, and all other sensitivity-causing treats in peace.