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Have you ever bitten into your favorite frozen treat, expecting to feel delighted and refreshed, just to be surprised with the sharp pain of sensitive teeth? What an unwelcome surprise! You are not the only one this has happened to. Sensitive teeth can ruin otherwise great experiences for many sufferers.

So what causes tooth sensitivity? Are sensitive teeth able to be prevented, avoided, and treated? Ask no more, we have your answers. Keep reading to learn about this inconvenient and very painful issue and how it can be treated.

What is Causing Your Tooth Sensitivity?

Tooth sensitivity can develop over time and it may be the result of one or even several of the following causes. Here are a few reasons you may be experiencing pain while eating foods that are too hot, cold, or perhaps even acidic.

1. Brutal Brushing

Your teeth need to be brushed twice a day (with a good fluoride toothpaste, we might add), but if you think that brushing better equates to brushing harder, you should reconsider. Giving your bicuspids a brutal beatdown will wear down the enamel your teeth desperately need in order to be protected from bacteria, acidic or sugary foods, and plaque build-up. If you brush too hard, your efforts to keep your teeth healthy may be working against you by scrubbing away their natural protection.

Instead of using elbow grease to get rid of unwanted bacteria, food, and germs, try taking a gentler approach to brushing, using subtle pressure with a soft-bristled toothbrush.

2. You’ve Got a Sweet Tooth

We all love a good cupcake (or four, or five). And who doesn’t enjoy a nice cold soda at the ballpark? But if you are eating these kinds of treats in large amounts, and especially too frequently, you could be causing sensitivity in your teeth. In addition to sugary foods, items high in starches and acid can also be damaging to your teeth. Foods and beverages like juice, candy, citrus fruits, donuts and cakes can be especially bad for your enamel.

These kinds of foods stick to your teeth, encourage plaque-build up, and cause cavities. Cavities, also known as tooth decay, cause holes to form in your teeth as plaque eats away at tooth structure and protective layers. These holes can reach into the nerve of your tooth, causing sensitivity to go through the roof.

3. You Grind Your Teeth

Grinding your teeth, also called bruxism, can be a sneaky issue. Perhaps you did not even realize you have been grinding your teeth until you felt oral sensitivity, because it is often done subconsciously in tense moments, as a stress response, or even when you are asleep. This is known as nocturnal bruxism.

No matter how gently you brush, how often you floss or use fluoride toothpaste, bruxism can damage your teeth. Aside from the jaw pain that may come as a result of grinding our teeth and clenching your jaw, you may notice sensitivity. Bruxism can cause the blunting of your tooth surface, the wearing away of enamel, and if severe enough, even cracked and broken teeth. Teeth like this will likely feel high sensitivity to temperatures, acidic or sugary foods, and other factors.

4. Plaque Build-Up

Remember those sugary and starchy foods we spoke about? They are delicious, yes, but they may be hanging out on your teeth for too long. When bacteria from these sugary and sticky items sits on your teeth, plaque can wreak havoc on your teeth, eroding the outer layer of enamel.

When enamel is eroded, the dentin layer underneath it is exposed, and unlike enamel, dentin is a softer and more vulnerable layer. Dentin contains pathways between your outer and inner tooth. If these pathways are opened, you are likely to feel pain and sensitivity from eating or drinking foods of extreme temperatures.

5. You Need to Floss

Flossing is the perfect side-kick to brushing your teeth. Floss is able to get into places that your toothbrush alone cannot. Failure to floss regularly can provide plaque with an opportunity to cling to your gum line and possibly sneak under your gums on top of the teeth. Because this space is close to your nerve, cavities and infections caused by build-up in this area can cause sensitivity to both the teeth and gums.

6. You’ve Bleached Your Teeth

Wanting white teeth is not a crime. It’s a good desire and just thinking of having a beautiful smile can make you smile. Unfortunately, many of the treatments marketed toward improving the brightness of your teeth contain peroxide and bleach that can make your teeth sensitive. It is very common for teeth to feel extra sensitive just after a whitening treatment.

Before reaching for a box of bleach to paint on and leave overnight, you may want to think of the damage it could be doing to your teeth. As a healthier alternative, you can simply brush with an effective whitening toothpaste, instead. This kind of toothpaste can protect your teeth, while whitening them back to a natural light color, and without any tooth sensitivity. This is a result bleach cannot promise.

7. You’re Maxed Out on Mouthwash

Don’t worry, you don’t have to swear off mouthwash for good. In fact, mouthwash, in conjunction with a consistent brushing and flossing routine can be very beneficial. Mouthwash can loosen and rinse away left behind bacteria and food particles that a toothbrush alone cannot reach.

However, some mouthwashes contain alcohols that can dry out your mouth as well as cause sensitivity. If you have noticed increased sensitivity in your mouth after using a mouthwash, you may want to check the label for alcohols, discontinue use, and find an alcohol-free rinse.

8. Your Dental Work Needs Work

It can be confusing to feel pain or sensitivity around a cavity that has already been filled, however fillings do not last forever. In fact, fillings can chip and become broken or cracked. If this happens, tooth decay can occur in the open spaces between your fillings and the surface of your tooth. Cavities under pre-existing fillings can reinstate previous decay and cause sensitivity to the decaying tooth.

Fillings can be removed and replaced, but it is best to contact your dentist as soon as you discover the issue for an exam and treatment plan, to possibly include filling repair.

9. A Tooth is Damaged

If a tooth becomes chipped, cracked, or broken, you may begin to feel sensitivity or pain around the broken portion of the tooth. Especially if a nerve is left exposed or with a very thin layer of protection around it, you may feel extreme pain. If you suspect you have a damaged tooth, call and make an appointment with a dental professional who can accurately diagnose the issue.

10. Acid Attack

There are issues of the esophagus, like bulimia or acid reflux (also known as GERD) that can cause issues on and inside your teeth, leading to sensitivity. In both diseases, acid from the stomach is able to travel up the esophagus and enter back into the mouth. If this happens frequently enough, the acid content in your stomach fluid can begin to erode your teeth.

While mild cases of GERD are able to be managed by simple lifestyle changes, teeth-damaging disorders like severe GERD and eating disorders like bulimia can be much harder to manage. If you suffer from either of these disorders, contact a medical professional to obtain a treatment plan. If this is the case, make sure to use fluoride, as it will help protect your enamel.

How to Improve Tooth Sensitivity

There are easy ways to improve your tooth sensitivity, as well as ways you can prevent it from worsening or occurring in the future.

The overall best way to protect your teeth against sensitivity is by following a simple, daily oral care ritual. This should always include brushing your teeth gently, twice a day, while giving each tooth enough brush time. Also, flossing and using a gentle antiseptic mouthwash can help protect your enamel from thinning and your teeth from decaying.

Remember to brush gently and use a mouthwash without alcohol for best prevention and protection.

When to Visit a Dentist

It is never a bad idea to reach out to your dentist at the first signs of oral discomfort. However, here are a few key signs that it is time to seek medical attention for your tooth sensitivity:

  • If your tooth sensitivity is partnered with jaw pain or fever, it is time to make an appointment.
  • If you experience throbbing or acute pain anywhere in your mouth that subsides for longer than 48 hours, call your dentist.
  • Finally, if you experience pain that does not improve after the use of at home or over the counter treatment, a dental professional may need to examine you for possible causes. This examination may include X-Rays of the mouth and jaw.

Don’t just manage the symptoms of tooth sensitivity, diagnose and prevent the cause by seeing your dentist often and following a daily oral hygiene routine.

This page was written or reviewed for accuracy by the Twice Team. Learn more about us.