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Sensitive teeth can be a sign your tooth enamel has worn away. Find out how this happens and which foods, drinks and even seemingly harmless habits can wear down your enamel.
In this article:
- Why are my teeth sensitive?
- Sensitive teeth symptoms
- What causes sensitive teeth?
- How to help sensitive teeth
- Sensitive teeth FAQs.
Why are my teeth sensitive?
Sensitive teeth often lead to sharp pain when eating or drinking something especially hot, cold, or sweet . This is because the layer of enamel that protects your teeth has become damaged, exposing the dentine beneath.
Dentine contains tiny holes which run to the nerve inside your tooth. Once the dentine is exposed, food and drink can get to your teeth's nerve centre, causing pain.
Receding gums can also expose the tooth root, which can be more sensitive as they’re not covered by a protective enamel layer. Like dentine, the roots of your teeth have lots of tiny holes, known as tubules, which allow food and drink to get to the nerves inside your teeth.
Sensitive teeth symptoms
The main symptom of sensitive teeth is sharp pain when encountering a trigger. In most cases, the pain is sudden but temporary. However, if you find the pain lasts for a few minutes or more, or happens spontaneously, you may need a trip to the dentist. It’s important to remember that the pain can come and go, with certain things affecting it more than others.
Sensitivity will usually flare up when you:
Have hot or cold food and drinks
Thought you'd drown your sensitive teeth worries in ice cream? Think again. Your enamel acts like a coat, shielding the dentine below from cold temperatures. When that wears down, cold stuff hurts.
Very hot food and drink can have a similar effect. Remember, heat can hurt when it touches the nerve endings in your skin, so the exposed nerves in your teeth react similarly.
Consume very sweet or acidic food and drinks
Do you love citrus fruits, tomatoes, pickles, and wine? You might, but your sensitive teeth don't. The high levels of acid in some foods and drinks can wear away at your enamel, making them even more sensitive.
Another acid culprit is sugar. The bacteria in your mouth love sugar, and the more of it you eat, the more acid they make. Many people have a sweet tooth, but some of the worst offenders to avoid are fizzy drinks, some sports drinks and juice. Over time, acid exposure to your teeth may lead to more prolonged aching that lasts well after your initial contact with the food or drink causing it. In these instances, you may need to see a dentist as a cavity, and not sensitivity, may be causing the pain.
If your teeth feel sensitive when you bite down, it could be a sign of an underlying dental condition including:
- Tooth decay
- An abscess
- Enamel erosion
- Broken teeth
- Root canal infection.
These conditions need to be checked by a dentist, so if you’re experiencing pain regularly when chewing, make sure you book an appointment.
Experience changes in temperature
It’s not just food and drink that can trigger your sensitive teeth. Simply breathing in cold air through your mouth could also affect the nerves through exposed dentine and cause that familiar sharp, shooting pain.
What causes sensitive teeth?
There could be lots of causes behind your sensitive teeth. While the leading cause is exposed dentine, this can happen in several ways. Let’s examine some of the common ways dentine becomes exposed and how this can cause sensitive teeth.
Cracked teeth or worn fillings
Bacteria and plaque can get inside the teeth through the openings created by worn fillings or cracks in the surface of your teeth. This can cause further pain and inflammation, which may also feel like sensitivity.
Gum recession is when your gums pull away from the tooth and expose the root surface.
The roots of your teeth aren't covered in protective enamel and are full of microscopic holes, meaning the nerve endings inside are more exposed to food, drink or cold air. The first sign of gum recession is usually tooth sensitivity, or you may notice a tooth looks longer than normal.
Erosion of enamel
Many of our favourite foods and drinks can slowly wear down the enamel on our teeth, exposing the layer of dentine beneath and causing sensitivity. Common culprits include:
- Sugary drinks
- Citric fruits
- Fruit drinks
- Sour foods
If you're partial to any of the above or other sharp-tasting or sour food and drinks, this could be the source of your sensitive teeth.
Plaque build-up around your gum line can lead to many problems, including gum recession and gum disease (also known as gingivitis). With gum disease, pockets can form around the base of your teeth, making it challenging to keep the area clean and free of bacteria. This becomes a vicious cycle, as the bacteria produce acid, worsening your sensitivity and forming plaque, causing your gums to deteriorate further.
Brushing too aggressively
We all think we know how to brush our teeth by the time we're adults. But using the wrong technique or brushing too vigorously could cause many problems, including sensitive teeth. Applying too much pressure, using a side-to-side motion, or using a hard or old brush can all cause issues, particularly near the bottom of your teeth.
Suppose you find that you wear toothbrushes out too quickly (they should last you around three months). In that case, you're probably brushing too hard or using the wrong technique, which may be wearing down your enamel and contributing to your sensitivity.
Grinding your teeth
Lots of people grind their teeth when stressed or even in their sleep. Many don't even realise they're doing it. But grinding can cause severe damage to your teeth and oral health. If you grind or clench your teeth too much, your teeth may start to flex and crack, exposing the nerves inside your teeth, leading to sensitivity. Clenching your teeth tightly can also have the same effect.
In some cases, gum recession happens naturally as we get older, meaning the roots of our teeth become more exposed. As they're not protected by enamel, this can cause sensitivity. Having said that, the most common age to experience tooth sensitivity is between the ages of 20 and 40.
Issues from cosmetic whitening treatments
Some teeth whitening products can contain baking soda and/or peroxide, which can erode enamel and cause sensitivity. While sensitivity after whitening is usually short-term, it can last up to several weeks, depending on how much damage it has done to your enamel.
Speak to your dentist before having any cosmetic whitening to ensure it's a suitable treatment for you. They'll be able to advise you if they feel whitening will worsen or aggregate any existing sensitivity.
Recent dental work
It's not uncommon to experience some temporary sensitivity after routine dental work, such as:
- Root planing
- Crown placement
- Tooth restoration.
Any sensitivity you experience after these procedures should subside in four to six weeks. Speak to your dentist if your symptoms persist.
How to help sensitive teeth
So how can you help sensitive teeth and reduce the discomfort they cause? Well, there are lots of different things you can try. From simple hacks and lifestyle changes to working closely with your dentist, here are some top ways to help ease your sensitive teeth:
Be gentler with brushing
Hard-bristled toothbrushes can be tough on your teeth. Try switching to a brush with softer bristles and apply less pressure to avoid wearing away your enamel.
A softer brush may also cause less irritation and damage to the delicate gum tissue around the roots of your teeth.
Maintain a good oral hygiene routine
Try switching up your oral hygiene routine to keep your mouth healthy and reduce the impact of sensitive teeth.
Some new tricks could include brushing in small circular motions at a 45-degree angle, which can cause less abrasion than brushing side to side, along with using a specific mouthwash for sensitive teeth. Our specially formulated mouthwash for sensitivity blocks sources of sensitivity for long-lasting protection.
Switch up your toothbrush and toothpaste
Whether it looks worn or not, you should be replacing your toothbrush every three months. If it starts to look worn after less than three months, change it immediately and maybe try applying less pressure.
The toothpaste you use could also impact the sensitivity of your teeth. Toothpaste designed specifically for sensitive teeth blocks the holes in your dentine or enamel, making it harder for food, drink, and air to get to the nerves. They can take up to three weeks to take effect, though, so don't expect to be able to immediately tuck into ice cream pain-free.
Reduce your intake of acidic foods and drinks
Food and drink that contain high acid levels can erode your enamel over time. Try reducing your intake of some of those fizzy drinks, alcohol, and sugary snacks to give your sensitive teeth a break and prevent the problem from getting worse. Instead, try snacking on foods that are high in calcium, such as:
- Plain yoghurt.
High-fibre fruits and vegetables are another great option for both your teeth and your general health.
Because most people who grind their teeth do so in their sleep, it's hard for them to stop. Try reducing your stress levels with mindfulness techniques, meditation, or yoga to help with grinding. If that doesn't work, you can speak to your dentist about creating a mouth guard or splint or having a muscle relaxant injection. If your problems persist, you may need dental work to change the position of your teeth.
Consider reducing tooth whitening treatments
Some whitening treatments can cause sensitivity, so reducing the frequency of using them could help protect and preserve your enamel. Speak to your dentist if you're unsure about the impact teeth whitening products have on your teeth and consider taking a break if you notice any discomfort or pain.
Consult your dentist
If you notice any new or persistent pain in your teeth, you should arrange to see your dentist. They can check for any signs of:
- Cracked teeth
- Enamel erosion
- Worn fillings
- Receding gums
- Gum disease issues.
Sensitive teeth FAQs
What is the difference between tooth sensitivity and pain in your mouth?
Tooth sensitivity is usually a sharp pain in response to air, food or drinks that are especially hot or cold or very sweet or sour. If you’re experiencing pain that is more severe and more constant, the chances are it’s a different kind of mouth pain and you should visit your dentist.
How can I help stop sensitive teeth after whitening?
Some teeth whitening treatments contain chemicals that can wear away your enamel with repeated use. Speak to your dentist for more information on protecting your teeth after whitening to reduce sensitivity. You could also try using a toothpaste or mouthwash specifically designed for sensitive teeth, which could help plug the holes in your dentine or enamel and restrict the impact of triggers like food, drink, and air on your sensitive teeth.
Why do I get sensitive teeth while chewing?
If you experience sensitivity when chewing, you may have an underlying dental problem, such as a cracked tooth, cavity, or abscess. If you have tooth pain that doesn't ease in a few days, make sure you see a dentist to ensure any problems are caught as soon as possible.
Do you get sensitive teeth when pregnant?
Every pregnancy is different, but it's not unusual for pregnancy hormones to make your gums more vulnerable to plaque. As plaque builds up around your gum line, the bacteria in your mouth can produce more acid, eroding your enamel and leading to sensitivity. A build-up of plaque may also cause inflammation and bleeding, commonly known as pregnancy gingivitis or gum disease, which can cause sensitivity.