Dental sensitivity may be a sign of a problem, or it could be an ongoing issue that needs management. Find out common causes and potential solutions.
Do your teeth feel sensitive when you have hot or cold food and drink, or even when you breathe cold air? Does chewing something especially sugary ever irritate your teeth?
Some people naturally have sensitive teeth and gums, but this can also be a sign of an underlying problem. A dental professional can help you understand any causes behind your sensitivity and whether they require any treatment.
What causes sensitive teeth?
Teeth are protected by a hard, outer layer — the enamel. If this gets damaged or worn away, it can expose the softer dentine layer underneath. This layer is more sensitive to factors like temperature or sugar.
Whether you’re experiencing sudden tooth sensitivity or you’ve experienced it for years, there could be many possible reasons. Some of the most common reasons for sensitive teeth are:
- brushing your teeth too roughly or using a toothbrush with firm bristles
- dental erosion caused by acidic food and drink or vomiting
- a chipped or cracked tooth
- dental decay
- an unsatisfactory filling
- gum disease or receding gums
- grinding your teeth while asleep or awake
- recent dental procedures, including crowns, veneers or teeth whitening
Are sensitive teeth normal?
Not all dental sensitivity is a symptom of an untreated problem. But, generally, a dental professional will need to examine your teeth and gums to determine whether there’s a problem or not.
Even if they don’t find an issue that needs in chair dental treatment, they may be able to help you manage the sensitivity.
Are sensitive teeth more prone to cavities?
Maybe. If your teeth are sensitive because the enamel is thin or weakened, then they may be more vulnerable to acid and decay.
What do sensitive teeth feel like?
This is different from person to person. However, a lot of people who experience dental sensitivity report sensations from sharp pains or lingering dull aches in their teeth.
Wondering whether your own experience could be classified as “sensitive”? If you’re feeling discomfort that’s strong enough for you to notice it and wonder about it, then you may need to consider speaking with a dentist.
Sensitive teeth after whitening and other dental procedures
Sensitivity is a common side effect from whitening or bleaching your teeth. It may be even more common if the whitening procedure involves a higher concentration of the bleaching agent or prolonged contact with your teeth.
If you already experience a lot of dental sensitivity, you should keep that in mind when weighing certain teeth whitening procedures or products. A dentist may be able to recommend gentler whitening options, like take-home kits that use a weaker bleaching gel.
Sensitive teeth can also be a result of both recent and past dental work. For instance, a broken filling can contribute to sensitivity. And recent dental work might irritate the tooth’s nerves temporarily — if you’ve undergone work like a clean, filling, crown preparation or veneers and the sensitivity isn’t going away after a few weeks, you should get in touch with your dentist.
Sensitive teeth when vaping
Since vaping is a relatively new trend, there’s still ongoing research into its effects on both your dental health and more general health.
However, because vaping involves nicotine, even in much smaller doses than regular cigarettes, there may be oral health risks. Nicotine use might damage your gum tissue, increase your risk of gum disease and causes dry mouth.1 Dry mouth can also increase your risk of tooth decay and gum disease since saliva production is important for helping wash away debris and bacteria.
Treatments for sensitive teeth
Your dentist can discuss treatments and remedies for sensitive teeth based on what's causing it. This may involve repairing damaged or worn-down teeth, removing an infection or improving your oral hygiene, or a combination of all of these.
Your dentist can give you a complete oral health assessment to find out why your teeth may be feeling sensitive. They might need to use diagnostic tools like x-rays to get a better understanding of your oral health.
Toothpaste for sensitive teeth
A dentist might prescribe a desensitising toothpaste that helps reduce pain signals to your tooth’s nerves. There are a variety of over-the-counter and prescription toothpastes, so your dentist’s recommendation will usually depend on your individual circumstances.
A dentist or hygienist can apply a fluoride treatment to your teeth, sometimes in the form of a gel, foam or rinse. This can help strengthen your enamel and lower your risk of some of the causes of dental sensitivity.
Root canal therapy
If tooth decay or a crack reaches the centre of your tooth where the nerve endings are, this can be very painful and make the tooth feel more sensitive.
Your dentist may recommend root canal therapy to remove the inflamed tissues and rebuild your tooth using a crown.
If you have chipped or worn teeth, these can be rebuilt using dental crowns. This will usually make the tooth feel less sensitive, but not always. Read more about crowns.
How to manage sensitive teeth at home
You can try to manage discomfort caused by sensitive teeth in a few different ways.
- Avoid food and drink that triggers sensitivity, such as ice cream or hot drinks.
- If you eat or drink something acidic, like fruit or soft drinks, rinse your mouth with water afterward.
- It's important to brush and floss your teeth to keep them free from plaque, even if it feels uncomfortable. Use a toothbrush with soft bristles and special toothpaste for sensitive teeth and gums and brush gently. Don't brush straight after eating, as this can wear down the teeth.
- Keep up with your scheduled dental check-ups so your dentist can check for any signs of problems and offer advice about how to treat and manage sensitive teeth.
Want to talk to a professional?
1 Malhotra R Kapoor A Grover V et al. Nicotine and periodontal tissues. J Indian Soc Periodontol. 2010; 14(1): 72-79.
The purpose of this article is to promote better understanding of dental health topics. It’s not meant to replace professional advice or diagnosis. Always talk to a dentist, doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you have a question about dental or medical conditions.