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What Causes Sensitive Teeth?

Tooth enamel, gum tissue, and cementum normally cover and protect teeth roots and nerves. Sensitive teeth typically develop when the tooth roots or nerves are less protected or exposed. 

Sensitive teeth may temporarily hurt when you brush your teeth, eat, or drink. Contact with cold, hot, or sweet foods or drinks can also cause pain in sensitive teeth.

A tooth’s hard, outer layer is called enamel. It covers dentin, a layer of tissue full of tiny tubes that connect to the nerve, or heart, of the tooth. Cementum is the layer under the gum line that covers the dentin on the tooth root. The gum tissues also help protect dentin and tooth roots. 

Tooth roots or dentin become exposed when enamel, cementum, or gum tissue is damaged or eroded.

Several common habits and factors can lead to tooth sensitivity. These include:

  • Brushing too hard
  • Consuming acidic foods or drinks
  • Using teeth whitening products or certain mouthwashes that are acidic
  • Allowing plaque to build up on teeth
  • Using tobacco products

Tooth sensitivity is common and often not a cause for concern. For example, tooth sensitivity is common in younger people since the nerves in their teeth are larger. But some conditions that cause sensitivity require medical attention.

More serious causes of tooth sensitivity include:

11 Ways to Treat Sensitive Teeth (At Home)

There is no real way to fix tooth sensitivity with at-home methods. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce symptoms and prevent them from worsening. For example:

1. Practice good oral hygiene

Plaque can cause sensitivity when it contacts root surfaces. It causes inflammation around the ligaments of teeth. Poor oral hygiene can also lead to tooth decay, which damages enamel and dentin. 

Brush the teeth twice daily using a toothpaste with fluoride and floss daily to minimize plaque. 

2. Use desensitizing or remineralizing toothpastes

Some desensitizing toothpastes available over the counter contain compounds that limit sensitivity. Remineralizing toothpastes contain ingredients that help restore enamel.

You have to use these products continuously to achieve an effect. For example, you can apply a small amount of desensitizing toothpaste directly to your teeth before bed. 

Look for products with the American Dental Association's (ADA’s) Seal of Acceptance. 

3. Avoid or limit acidic foods and drinks

Foods with a lot of acid can erode tooth enamel. Exposure to acid can also intensify tooth sensitivity and cause pain.

Examples of acidic foods and drinks include:

  • Citrus fruits (grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges) 
  • Tomatoes
  • Pickled foods
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Wine

Use a straw when drinking acidic beverages to reduce acid contact with teeth. Neutralize acid levels in the mouth after eating or drinking acidic foods by rinsing with water. 

“It is important NOT to brush your teeth immediately after exposure to an acidic substance, as this can actually cause your enamel to wear away when your teeth are most vulnerable,” says Dr. Khushbu Aggarwal, one of NewMouth’s in-house dentists. “Wait at least 30 minutes to brush your teeth after eating or drinking to ensure the pH balance in your mouth has been restored,” she adds. 

4. Protect your teeth from clenching or grinding

Tooth grinding or clenching can wear down tooth enamel. For some people, actively thinking about not clenching or grinding can help. You can also wear devices like a night guard to  prevent tooth wear that results from grinding. 

5. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush

Toothbrushes with soft bristles are less abrasive on tooth surfaces and protect enamel. Soft bristled toothbrushes also tend to irritate or damage gums tissues less.

6. Brush gently

Gentle tooth brushing can prevent further enamel damage. Brushing the gums gently can also reduce gum damage and recession. Some electric toothbrushes have pressure indicators that let you know when you are brushing too aggressively.  

7. Use fluoridated mouthwashes

Fluoridated mouthwash or mouth rinses can reduce sensitivity if you use them daily. Fluoride helps strengthen enamel and prevent tooth decay.

8. Don’t use whitening products

Whitening tooth products contain ingredients like baking soda and hydrogen peroxide that can damage enamel and/or dentin over time.

9. Avoid harsh mouthwashes

Some OTC mouthwashes have a low pH that can damage exposed dentin. Talk to a dentist about using neutral fluoride products if you have sensitive teeth. 

10. Avoid or limit sweet foods and drinks

Sugars in sweet foods and drinks can cause pain in sensitive teeth. They can also worsen tooth decay and increase the risk of developing cavities.

11. Get routine dental cleanings

Regular teeth cleaning and in-office fluoride treatments every 6 months can reduce sensitivity.

When to See Your Dentist for Tooth Sensitivity

A lot of people experience mild tooth sensitivity. 

But talk to a dentist if you experience signs and symptoms associated with more serious underlying conditions, such as:

  • Mild to intense pain when chewing, drinking, or eating 
  • Toothaches or swelling around teeth
  • Gums that bleed easily, are swollen or discolored, and/or are sensitive
  • Jaw pain or swelling (especially first thing in the morning)
  • Pain when you bite
  • Pits or holes in the teeth
  • White, black, or brown stains on teeth
  • A bad taste in the mouth or bad breath
  • Teeth that look longer than normal
  • Loose teeth or teeth that look damaged or diseased
  • Pus in the space between teeth and the gums
  • Face, shoulder, or neck pain
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches and earaches

Diagnosis 

To diagnose tooth sensitivity, a dentist will ask you questions about your pain, such as:

  • When it started
  • How intense or frequent it is
  • What factors make it better or worse 

A dentist will also examine your teeth and mouth to diagnose or assess tooth sensitivity. During the exam, they may expose teeth to air or water to mimic sensitivity triggers. They may also press on the teeth or gums.

Treatment Options 

A dentist can perform several procedures to treat tooth sensitivity.

If your enamel is damaged, worn down, or weak, a dentist may apply a highly-concentrated fluoride gel or a medicament called gluma to the teeth. Your dentist may also give you prescription fluoride products to use at home.

A dentist may also perform certain procedures to cover exposed tooth roots if they’re causing sensitivity. Common treatment options for exposed roots include:

How Can You Prevent Tooth Sensitivity?

Some causes of tooth sensitivity are unpreventable, like age. But there are ways to prevent teeth from becoming overly sensitive.

Tips for preventing tooth sensitivity include:

  • Practice good oral hygiene
  • Use desensitizing toothpaste 
  • Don’t brush too hard and use soft-bristled toothbrushes
  • Protect your teeth with a night guard
  • Avoid or limit acidic or sugary foods and drinks
  • Use a straw when drinking acidic drinks
  • Avoid using whitening products and/or acidic mouthwashes 
  • Rinse the mouth with water after eating or drinking acidic or sugary foods
  • Get regular dental cleanings and fluoride treatments

Summary

Tooth sensitivity develops when a tooth’s roots or nerves are less protected than they should be. This tends to occur when layers of teeth, such as the enamel and cementum, are worn down or damaged. It may also occur when the gums recede.

Several at-home remedies can reduce symptoms of tooth sensitivity and prevent it from worsening. But talk to a dentist about severe tooth sensitivity or sensitivity accompanied by other symptoms.

Last updated on May 13, 2022
12 Sources Cited
Last updated on May 13, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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  2. American Dental Association. “Sensitive teeth: Causes and treatment.
  3. Cleveland Clinic. “Fractured Tooth (Cracked Tooth).
  4. Cleveland Clinic. “Is Teeth Whitening Safe?
  5. Cleveland Clinic. “Teeth sensitivity.
  6. Davari, A.R., et al. . “Dentin Hypersensitivity: Etiology, Diagnosis and Treatment; A Literature Review.” Journal of Dentistry
  7. Mayo Clinic. “Cavities/tooth decay.
  8. Mayo Clinic. “Periodontitis.
  9. Mayo Clinic. “Tooth abscesses.
  10. Mayo Clinic. “What causes sensitive teeth, and how can I treat them?
  11. Mouth Healthy. “Sensitive teeth.
  12. National Health Service. “Overview: Teeth grinding (bruxism).
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