Perhaps you’ve taken a swig of a cold drink and winced in pain. Or inhaled on a chilly day and felt a jolt when the air hit your teeth. Maybe you found yourself unable to enjoy a cup of hot tea without a sharp ache punctuating each sip. If any of these situations sounds familiar, you probably have sensitive teeth.
The reasons for the discomfort are many, says Mark S. Wolff, DDS, PhD, a professor and chair of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care at New York University College of Dentistry. First, the root structure of one or more teeth may have become exposed. Normally covered by gum tissue, this layer just underneath — called dentin — contains millions of tiny tubules (or tubes), each of which is connected to a nerve ending. It’s when the tubules are left unprotected by gum recession or enamel erosion that problems arise. Receding gums, tooth grinding, a diet high in acidic beverages, and overaggressive brushing can all leave dentin exposed.
Brushing too hard is a surprisingly big problem for a lot of people, Wolff says. “Harsh strokes wear away at the gum tissue as well as the tooth’s enamel layer, leaving each dentin tubule vulnerable to whatever it comes in contact with — hot, cold, soft, or hard.”
Your favorite beverages can make a big difference, too. Anything with a high acid level — sodas, coffee, tea, almost all juices, wine, and many popular energy drinks — can worsen enamel erosion and discomfort. Carbonated water is OK, says Wolff, but watch out for flavored seltzer, which may have citric acid.
Dentin can also become irritated if you overuse tooth-whitening agents, which contain harsh ingredients to strip away stains. Unfortunately, they can also thin the enamel layer around dentin, exposing the tender tubules.
For severe sensitivity, talk to your dentist about bonding the problematic areas. This is essentially a very fine varnish your dentist applies to the tooth. It’s not a permanent fix, though.