Maybe it’s an unpleasant sip of coffee or bite of ice cream. Or maybe you’ve come to realize that brushing your teeth has gradually become less comfortable than it used to be.

Whatever the case may be, if you’re noticing discomfort or other new sensations when certain things come in contact with your teeth, it may be a sign of tooth sensitivity. Keep reading to learn what tooth sensitivity is, what causes it, what steps you can take and more.

What is tooth sensitivity?

Tooth sensitivity happens when a tooth begins to lose its outer, protective surface. Healthy teeth have a protective layer of enamel on their surface above the gum line, and a protective layer of cementum below the gum line. Below both enamel and cementum is a layer of softer, more porous material called dentin, which surrounds the sensitive nerves inside your teeth.

When enamel or cementum gets worn away, it allows temperature, food and drink to reach the nerves inside the tooth through the soft layer of dentin.

What does tooth sensitivity feel like?

Tooth sensitivity varies from person to person. Some people only feel it in small amounts, but it’s commonly described as a sudden, strong pain in response to certain triggers:

  • Physical triggers – If there’s enough dentin exposure or you brush especially hard, brushing your teeth may be uncomfortable.
  • Temperature triggers – Sometimes, temperature sensitivity can be a normal response to something that’s too hot or too cold. It’s a protective measure for our teeth. However, when dentin is exposed, discomfort can extend to less extreme temperatures, such as breathing cool air through your mouth.
  • Chemical triggers – Teeth can be sensitive to sugar and acid, or become sensitive after using teeth-whitening products such as whitening toothpastes, strips or gel trays.

What causes sensitive teeth?

Tooth sensitivity can be caused by anything that exposes dentin, either by removing enamel or gum recession. This can include:

  • Brushing your teeth too hard
  • Clenching or grinding your teeth
  • Frequently consuming highly acidic foods and drinks
  • Frequently using teeth-whitening products
  • Natural gum recession or gum recession related to gum disease
  • New or existing tooth damage, such as a fracture, tooth decay or a worn filling
  • Deficiency in some nutrients like vitamin D

How to fix sensitive teeth

Tooth sensitivity doesn’t go away on its own, but there are effective treatments available. The most effective treatments depend on what’s causing your sensitivity. Here are a few things you can do that generally have a strong impact.

1. Brush your teeth properly with toothpaste for sensitive teeth

Proper teeth brushing technique is important. It doesn’t actually take that much pressure to remove plaque, but brushing too hard can actually remove enamel.

So it’s important to not brush too aggressively. Some dentists even recommend holding your toothbrush with only two fingers. Use a soft-bristled toothbrush, brush gently in small circles and avoid brushing directly side to side.

What’s in your toothpaste also matters. Regular use of fluoride – either in toothpaste or other dental hygiene products – helps keep existing enamel strong and helps rebuild weakened enamel. You can also buy toothpaste that’s specially made for people with sensitive teeth. These toothpastes often include fluoride, as well as ingredients that lessen sensitivity when used regularly.

2. Adjust your diet

Reducing the amount of acid in your diet (such as from citrus, wine, vinegar and carbonated drinks) can reduce the wear on your enamel and lessen discomfort. You don’t have to eliminate acid entirely – the goal is just to minimize the amount of time that acid is in contact with your teeth.

It can help to drink acidic beverages with a straw, and to rinse your mouth out with water after consuming anything acidic. Avoid brushing your teeth immediately after consuming acidic food or drink, as enamel is more vulnerable right after exposure to acid.

3. See a dentist

Pain or sensitivity in your mouth is always a reason to see a dentist. They can give you recommendations for managing your sensitivity, but more importantly, they can identify and treat any underlying factors that are contributing to it, such as tooth decay or gum disease. In some cases, if other remedies for tooth sensitivity aren’t effective, a dentist may recommend treatments like:

  • Fluoride gel, rinses or varnishes – More concentrated forms of fluoride can be repeatedly applied to teeth to strengthen enamel and dentin.
  • Bonding – A bonding resin or other substance can be used to cover sensitive areas on teeth and protect against sensitivity.
  • Gum graft – When tooth sensitivity is related to lost gum tissue, small amounts of tissue can be taken from other parts of the mouth and used to cover exposed roots.

Take steps to improve teeth sensitivity

With overly sensitive teeth, even the idea of brushing and flossing can be discouraging. But in addition to the recommendations above, it’s equally important that you stay on top of all of your usual dental care – brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing daily and regular dental appointments. These practices are the foundation of your oral health, and help minimize or prevent conditions that can contribute to sensitivity and other issues.

Whether you’re experiencing sensitivity or are due for a checkup, making an appointment is your next step.