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Sensitive teeth: Do hot and cold bother you?

If a taste of ice cream or a sip of coffee creates tooth pain, you may have sensitive teeth. But don't worry. This common condition is treatable.

What is tooth sensitivity?

When the tooth’s hard enamel wears down or gums recede, tiny microscopic tubes located in the layer of tooth below the enamel are exposed. Tooth sensitivity is caused by the stimulation of cells within these tubes, causing a short, sharp pain when the area is exposed to hot or cold temperatures through food and beverages — or even by the air.

Another cause of tooth sensitivity is cracks in the tooth’s enamel surface. Extreme temperature changes cause teeth to expand and contract. Over time, microscopic cracks may develop, allowing hot or cold sensations to seep through to the nerves beneath the tooth enamel.

What you can do

You can manage the pain of sensitive teeth with these simple steps:

  • Change your brand of toothpasteSome toothpastes increase tooth sensitivity, including whitening toothpastes that lighten or remove stains from enamel, and tartar-control toothpastes containing sodium pyrophosphate. Toothpastes designed for people with sensitive teeth are available. Note that these products typically must be used regularly for at least a month before you notice any effects.
  • Take it easy on your teeth. Avoid using hard-bristled toothbrushes and brushing your teeth too vigorously, which can wear down the tooth’s root surface and expose sensitive spots. Take a good look at your toothbrush. If the bristles are flattened or pointing in multiple directions, you’re putting too much pressure on your teeth.
  • Skip the marinara sauce. Some foods or drinks can aggravate sensitive teeth. Avoid or limit acidic items, such as food or drink with a high concentration of tomatoes, oranges or lemons.

Video: Tooth sensitivity

Are your teeth sensitive to hot and cold? Here's what you can do to relieve the pain.

When to see a dentist

If a tooth is highly sensitive for more than three or four days and reacts to both hot and cold temperatures, it’s time to visit your dentist. Sensitivity may be a sign of a cavity or infected tooth pulp. Tell the dentist when the pain started and if there’s anything, such as applying a warm compress, that gives you relief from the pain.

If you’re diagnosed with sensitive teeth, your dentist can prescribe a treatment option, such as in-office treatments (applying a desensitizing agent or a protective coating to the teeth) and take-home products for personal use. If your tooth sensitivity is severe and persistent or it can’t be treated by other means, your dentist may recommend root canal treatment.

Last updated February 7, 2022

The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.