If the first bite of an ice cream cone leaves your mouth aching, you may be that one in eight people who, according to a 2013 University of Washington study, has sensitive teeth.
The cause, when it’s not due to a cracked tooth, decay, or a missing filling, is the exposure of dentin, the inner material of the tooth, explains paper co-author Marilynn Rothen of the Regional Clinical Dental Research Center at the University of Washington School of Dentistry.
“When the enamel [on the outside] of the tooth wears away, or when gums recede and the root covering called cementum is worn away, the dentin is exposed,” she says.
Although the tooth itself can’t distinguish between sensations like hot and cold—only our gum tissues and tongue can do that—it does carry pain sensations primarily from hot, cold or sweet stimuli to the nerve, explains Dr. Kimberly Harms, a national spokesperson for the American Dental Association and a dental consultant in Farmington, Minn. “The dentin has tubules that are like pipes with tiny nerves. They [carry sensations of pain] to the nerve.”
So, how can you keep from getting sensitive teeth—or deal with ones you have? These steps can help.
Become an easy-going brusher. “Use a soft brush, brushing gently especially by the gum line so that you clean the area where the tooth meets the gum,” says Rothen. Use a circular motion, not the scrubbing you might give floors or dishes. “People who use harder brushes and really scrub may cause gum recession and the loss of enamel and cementum,” she says. Brush twice a day and floss at least one a day.
Switch to toothpaste for sensitive teeth. Made from potassium nitrate–a white salt–and some calcium components such as calcium carbonate, sensitive toothpastes such as Sensodyne and Rembrandt block the dentin tubules so irritants can’t get in, says Harms: “The toothpaste is like a plug that blocks the channels, so cold, hot and sweet can’t get to the nerve.” If the toothpaste doesn’t relieve sensitivity within two weeks, check with your dentist. Your teeth may be sensitive for another reason like a fracture or damaged nerve.
Opt for fluoride treatments. Ask your doctor for a fluoride treatment at each visit and use fluoride toothpaste. “Fluoride helps [block] the dentin tubules,” says Rothen. And it protects teeth from decay.
Nix the whiteners. The University of Washington study found that people who used whiteners were 1.4 times more likely to have sensitive teeth. “The chemicals that whiten change the physical structure of the tooth, probably opening the dentinal tubules,” says Rothen. “However, once you stop using the whitener, the sensitivity usually goes away.“
Treat acidic foods as the enemy. Mouth bacteria produce acid. And they thrive on acid-producing foods like sugars and fruit juice. “Acid contributes to wearing away your teeth,” says Harms. “If you drink a sugary drink all at once, that’s not as bad as sipping on one all day,” exposing your teeth repeatedly.
Rinse, then brush. Harms advises waiting a half hour before brushing your teeth after eating or drinking acidic, high-sugar foods like orange juice or energy drinks: “The acid softens the enamel so if you brush immediately you remove some.” Instead, rinse your mouth with water.
Review medications with your dentist. “Many medications such as antidepressants and those for high blood pressure cause dry mouth,” says Harms. “And dry mouth causes a greater likelihood of decay where the root surface is exposed, which then leads to sensitivity.”