Sensitive teeth

A sharp, intense shooting pain that goes deep into the tooth is often the telltale sign of sensitive teeth. It is important to get any new sensitivity checked out by the dentist, who can look for decay or cracks that need treatment.

Sensitivity is commonly triggered by hot, cold, sweet or acidic food or drinks. Sometimes, simply breathing with your mouth open is enough to cause pain.

sensitive toothIn some people the pain can last a few minutes, or even hours, while in others it passes off quickly. The longer pain lasts the more likely it is that a serious problem exists, so any pain that last more than a few seconds should be checked by your dentist as soon as possible.

Exposed dentine causes tooth sensitivity

Dentine is a slightly softer material than the enamel that covers it. It contains tiny holes – or tubules – through which acids, sugars and liquids can reach the sensitive nerve of the tooth. Sensitivity in your tooth suggests that dentine, the layer below the enamel surface of the tooth, is exposed somewhere. 

Causes of dentine exposure

  • Tooth decay
    • If a tooth becomes sensitive it may have developed a cavity. This allows food, drink and cold air access to the sensitive layers of the tooth.
  • Receded gums
    • Gums can recede as a result of gum disease, over-enthusiastic brushing, or the use of a hard toothbrush. The root of the tooth is not protected by enamel. When the gum recedes and reveals more of the tooth, it exposes this sensitive root surface.
  • Plaque
    • Having plaque on the root surface of your teeth can produce sensitivity. This is due to the toxins and acids that are produced by the plaque bacteria entering the tubules in the exposed dentine and stimulating the nerve endings deeper within the tooth.
  • Acidic food, drink or mouthwash
    • Acids in some mouthwashes, in foods such as oranges and tomatoes, and in drinks like fruit juices and soft drinks and sports drinks, can gradually erode tooth enamel to expose the dentine.
  • Cracks in the teeth
    • Cracks in the enamel of the tooth allow food particles and liquids access to the deeper layers of the teeth. These cracks can also fill with bacteria and cause inflammation.
  • Wear and tear to the enamel
    • Over time, chewing, tooth-grinding (bruxism) and brushing too hard can all wear away enamel, exposing the dentine underneath.
  • Tooth-whitening products
    • Products that contain baking soda or peroxide to whiten teeth can cause microscopic damage to tooth enamel and give rise to tooth sensitivity.

What can you do about sensitive teeth?

As with so many aspects of your health, prevention of sensitive teeth is better than treatment and good dental hygiene is the best place to start. 

Visit your dentist regularly and make a special visit to check out newly sensitive teeth. Early treatment of tooth decay will prevent bigger problems in the long run.

Other things you can do to prevent and reduce tooth sensitivity include:

  • man cleaning his teethUsing a soft toothbrush 
    • Using a soft toothbrush minimises overbrushing and abrasion, which can wear away enamel and gum tissue.
  • Using a toothpaste for sensitive teeth
    • ‘Sensitive’ toothpaste can help to reduce sensitivity in teeth, but only for as long as it is used. Its effect wears off as soon as you stop using it. In addition to using it on your toothbrush, you can put a small amount directly onto the sensitive areas before you go to bed.
  • Using fluoridated toothpaste and mouthwash
    • Fluoride helps in the remineralisation of teeth and can reduce sensitivity over time. Fluoridated toothpaste for sensitive teeth is readily available.
  • Reducing your intake of acidic foods
    • The acids in soft drinks, sports drinks, and in fruits and juices, such as oranges and kiwi fruit, all erode tooth enamel. They can also aggravate any existing sensitivity.
  • Avoid brushing teeth for 20-30 minutes after acidic foods and drinks 
    • Waiting allows the saliva in your mouth to get to work in restoring the correct pH balance in the mouth and begin to repair the damage caused by the acidic food and drink. 
  • Avoiding tooth-grinding (bruxism)
    • Tooth-grinding wears away and cracks tooth enamel. Talk to your dentist if tooth-grinding is an issue for you. Some people grind their teeth in their sleep and may not know they do it. A sore, tight or aching jaw or a complaining partner might be another clue that bruxism may be the root of the problem.

See your dentist if sensitive teeth are a problem

If you find that tooth sensitivity is troubling you, or it does not improve, see your dentist, who may be able to offer other treatments.

  • A fluoride gel or desensitising agent may be applied to the sensitive areas of the tooth.
  • Your dentist may identify flaws or cavities that can be corrected with a filling, bonding, crown or inlay.
  • If you have lost a significant amount of gum tissue, your dentist may recommend a gum-graft to cover the root of the tooth.
  • As a last resort, if nothing else has worked, endodontic (root canal) treatment may be recommended, in which the nerve(s) of the tooth are removed, the centre is filled and a crown placed over the tooth.

Learn more

Sensitive teeth Auckland Dental Association

Reviewed By: John Boyens, Department of Oral Sciences, Otago University. November 2009. Latest review Health Nav team 2016