If you've ever drunk a cold lemonade and felt a tingling sensation afterward, you might have sensitive teeth. Sensitive teeth develop two ways: Gum lines recede or enamel erodes. Enamel and gums act as outer shields protecting dentin, the layer beneath the enamel in your tooth. Dentin is full of tubules that lead down to your root nerves. When hot or cold food or drink contacts the dentin, your nerves erupt in pain [source: Carr].
Unlike some dental diseases related to age, tooth sensitivity can appear at any time, but most often affects those aged 25 to 30 [source: WebMD]. Not to worry. Sensitivity is curable with proper treatment and time. If your teeth don't recover after a month of good care, consult your dentist because you might have a nerve problem.
But during that month, begin self-treatment by picking the right toothpaste.
Toothpastes formulated for sensitive teeth usually contain either potassium nitrate or strontium chloride. These chemicals plug up the tubules in dentin [source: Zamosky]. Some travel all the way down to your teeth nerves, where they build a shield. Strontium chloride in particular triggers minerals in your saliva to harden over the tubules [source: Save Your Smile].
Brush these pastes on with a soft-bristled toothbrush (avoid hard bristles because they scratch enamel over time) or even a finger if your tooth is super-sensitive. Brush or rub gently. Give the chemicals time to interact before spitting, and wait a few minutes before rinsing lightly. Sensitivity should disappear in two or three weeks.
If new toothpaste isn't enough, add fluoride to your routine.
Fluoride is an active ingredient in many toothpastes because it repairs light damage to your teeth by restoring tooth enamel. Rinsing with an over-the-counter fluoride mouthwash once daily can decrease sensitivity, stopping the pain you feel. If the fluoride rinse feels good but isn't enough, a stronger varnish is available from your dentist. Ask your dentist about coating your teeth in a fluoride varnish to treat sensitivity [source: Zamosky]. This takes only a few minutes to apply. Your dentist might want you to have periodic coatings and may also prescribe a high-fluoride mouthwash [source: Mayo Clinic].
But beware of non-prescription mouthwashes or those your dentist doesn't recommend. Some contain as much enamel-eroding acid as many acidic foods and drinks.
Acid erodes tooth enamel, so the less you have touching your teeth the better. Consuming sugar and starches starts production of digestive acids in your mouth, and foods with already high acid content (like citrus fruit or soda) bring acid to your teeth directly. When you're eating or drinking foods high in acid, starch or sugar, use a straw if possible and brush your teeth right after. This will lessen the time these substances spend on your teeth.
Over-the-counter mouthwashes also contain acid. If you're unsure about mouthwash ingredients, ask your dentist to recommend a brand. Eating foods, such as milk or cheese, can help neutralize acid introduced to the mouth [source: WebMD].
When you're away from home and your toothbrush, two easy ways to care for your teeth are to chew sugarless gum and drink tap water.
Sugarless gum triggers saliva production, and saliva replenishes protective minerals your acidic foods might have stolen. These minerals prevent decay, leaving behind stronger teeth. Gum can also pick up food particles that might collect otherwise, leading to plaque build-up or periodontal disease, which can cause receding gums [source: Zamosky].
Drinking tap water also wipes away lingering sugars and acids from your teeth. It's a great way to lessen the effects from food or sodas when you can't brush. And since tap water has fluoride added to it, it's actually better for your teeth than bottled water [source: Mayo Clinic].
When these tricks don't desensitize your teeth, though, it's time to see the dentist.
Your dentist can strengthen teeth better than any home remedy. Ask about an "oxalate" root rub, which stops or greatly reduces sensitivity by coating the root [source: Save Your Smile]. If your gum lines have permanently receded, your dentist can seal and protect your roots with bonding agents. Unfortunately, gums recede sometimes from dental procedures, such as crown placement or cleanings, and heal only with time, typically four to six weeks [source: WebMD].
New procedures help sensitivity, too. Those who grind their teeth at night can ask about a mouth guard to wear over their teeth. The guard keeps you from grinding away your enamel in your sleep. If sensitivity occurs in a tooth with an old silver filling, your dentist can redo the filling. Silver transmits hot and cold, so replacing a big silver filling with new material can eliminate pain. If your tooth cracked, ask for a non-silver filling immediately to plug root exposure.
Finally, see your dentist biannually for cleanings. She can catch causes of sensitivity, such as plaque build-up, before they worsen.
For more about dental hygiene, see the links on the next page.
Toothpaste has a long, strange history. Check it out with HowStuffWorks.
- ADC Dental Group. "5 Ways to Care for Sensitive Teeth." Adcofjoplin.com. Aug. 3, 2011. (Aug. 26, 2011). http://adcofjoplin.com/2011/08/03/5-ways-to-care-for-sensitive-teeth/
- Carr, Alan, DMD. "When to brush your teeth: Is there a time that's best to brush your teeth? After certain foods?" Mayoclinic.com. Aug. 31, 2010. (Aug. 26, 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/brushing-your-teeth/AN02098
- Hendrick, Bill. "Brushing Too Hard Causes Sensitive Teeth: Dentists in Survey Say Acidic Foods and Drinks Also Lead to Sensitive Teeth." WebMD Health News. Nov. 10, 2009. (Aug. 26, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/news/20091110/brushing-too-hard-causes-sensitive-teeth
- Mayo Clinic staff. "Oral health: Brush up on dental care basics." Mayoclinic.com. Feb. 17, 2011. (Aug. 26, 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dental/DE00003
- Mayo Clinic staff. "Cavities / Tooth Decay: Treatments and Drugs." Mayoclinic.com. April 28, 2011. (Aug. 26, 2011). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cavities/DS00896/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs
- Save Your Smile. "What You Should Do About Sensitive Teeth." Saveyoursmile.com (Aug. 26, 2011). http://www.saveyoursmile.com/healtharticles/sensitiveteeth.html
- WebMD. "Dental Health and Sensitive Teeth." Sept. 17, 2009. (Aug. 26, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/tooth-sensitivity. WebMD. "Slideshow: What Causes Sensitive Teeth?"