Sensitive teeth | Oral Health Foundation

What are sensitive teeth?

Sensitive teeth can mean anything from a slight sting to severe discomfort that can last for hours. It can also be an early warning sign of more serious dental problems.

Who suffers from sensitive teeth?

Many people suffer from sensitive teeth and it can start at any time. It is more common in people between the ages of 20 and 40, although it can affect people in their early teens and over the age of 70. Women are affected more often than men.

What causes sensitive teeth?

The visible part of the tooth has a layer of enamel that protects the softer dentin underneath. When the dentin is exposed, a tooth can become sensitive. This usually happens where the tooth and gum meet and the enamel layer is much thinner. Here are some causes of sensitivity:

  • Excessive brushing (“toothbrush abrasion”) and brushing from one side to the other can lead to the abrasion of tooth enamel – especially where the teeth meet the gums. The freshly exposed dentin can then become sensitive.
  • Tooth erosion: This is the loss of tooth enamel caused by acid attack from acidic foods and drinks. When the enamel is removed, the underlying dentin is exposed, which can lead to tenderness. The gums can naturally retract (shrink back) and the roots of the teeth become exposed and can be more sensitive. Root surfaces do not have an enamel layer to protect them.
  • Gums can recede (shrink back) naturally, exposing the roots of the teeth and making them more sensitive. Root surfaces do not have an enamel layer to protect them.
  • Inflammation of the gums: A build-up of plaque or tartar can cause the gums to recede downward and even destroy the bony support of the tooth. Pockets can form in the gums around the tooth, making it difficult to clean the area and making the problem worse.
  • Teeth grinding: This is a habit that involves clenching and grinding your teeth. This can cause enamel to wear away and teeth to become sensitive.
  • A broken tooth or filling: a broken tooth is a broken tooth.
  • Teeth Whitening: Some patients have a temporary sensitivity during or after the whitening. Discuss it with your dental team before treatment.

When are teeth more sensitive?

You are more likely to feel the sensitivity when drinking or eating something cold, from cold air catching your teeth, and sometimes from hot food or drink. Some people are sensitive when they eat sweet or acidic foods and drinks. The pain can come and go, sometimes worse than others.

Is there anything I should avoid if I have sensitive teeth?

You may find that hot, cold, sweet, or acidic beverages or foods like ice cream can cause sensitivity, so avoid them. If you are sensitive about brushing your teeth with cold tap water, you may need to use warm water instead. It’s important to brush your teeth regularly – if you don’t, it can make the problem worse.

Do I have to see my dentist?

Yes, if you have tried treating your sensitive teeth for a few weeks and there is no improvement.

What treatments can the dentist offer?

During an exam, the dental team will talk to you about your symptoms. They will be looking at your teeth to find out what is causing the sensitivity and how best to treat it. The dental team can treat the affected teeth with special “desensitizing” products to alleviate the symptoms. Fluoride gels, rinses or varnishes can be applied to sensitive teeth. These can be painted on the teeth at regular intervals of one to two weeks in order to build up a certain protection. It may take time for sensitivity to settle and you may have to have multiple appointments. If this still doesn’t help, your dental team can seal or fill the neck of the tooth where the tooth and gum meet to cover exposed dentin. In very severe cases, a root filling of the tooth may be necessary.

Is there anything I can do to treat sensitive teeth at home?

There are many brands of toothpaste on the market that are designed to relieve the pain of sensitive teeth. You should use that fluoride Toothpaste twice a day for brushing your teeth. You can also apply it on the sensitive areas. These toothpastes can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to take effect. Your dental team should be able to advise you on which type of toothpaste is best for you.

How can I prevent sensitive teeth?

  • The last time you brush your teeth at night and at least one more time a day with fluoride toothpaste that contains at least 1350 ppm (parts per million) fluoride. Consider using toothpaste that is specifically designed for sensitive teeth. Use small, circular motions with a soft to medium-bristled brush. Try to avoid brushing your teeth from side to side.
  • Change your toothbrush every two to three months or sooner if it wears out.
  • Don’t brush right after you eat – some foods and drinks can soften tooth enamel, so let it sit for at least an hour before brushing.
  • Eat sugary foods and carbonated and acidic drinks less often. Try to have them only with meals.
  • If you grind your teeth, speak to your dental team about whether you should have a night mask made for you.
  • If you are considering having your teeth bleached, discuss the sensitivity with your dental team before starting treatment.
  • Visit your dental team regularly, as often as recommended.

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Do you need further advice?

For free and impartial advice about your oral health, turn to ours Dental hotline by email or by phone on 01788 539780 (UK local rate).

Our Dental Helpline is completely confidential and has helped nearly 400,000 people since it opened over 20 years ago. Contact our experts by phone, email or online request, Monday to Friday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Many thanks to GlaxoSmithKline for kindly giving us a Educational grant for this information. GSK’s support not only enables us to develop and maintain this advice online, but also means that we can continue to offer itital resource as a printed leaflet for dental practices and hospitals to be given to patients and to be placed in waiting areas.

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