When the cold weather hits, few things sound better than cozying up with a mug of hot cocoa or mulled cider – unless you have a tooth sensitivity to hot liquids. Although they warm you right down to your toes, festive winter beverages can cause intense oral pain that, more often than not, indicates an underlying dental problem.
If you're wincing as you sip hot buttered rum or holiday eggnog, here's what may be to blame:
1. Eroded Enamel
Tooth sensitivity is often caused by worn-down enamel, the hard surface layer that shields the more sensitive inner layers of your teeth from excessive pressure. Enamel also forms a strong barrier against the effects of abrasive foods and plaque buildup. The roots of your teeth below your gumline are protected by a different material called cementum, which can erode as well.
Numerous types of behavior can cause enamel and cementum to erode: tooth grinding, tartar (due to hardened plaque), brushing with too much force and so on. You may also be using a toothbrush whose bristles are too hard (brushes like Colgate® 360°® Enamel Health™ Sensitive Teeth can soften your routine). Once this enamel and cementum wear away, the soft inner layer of dentin is exposed. And because dentin is filled with tiny nerve endings, you become more vulnerable to pain when sipping a hot drink.
2. Receding Gums
This condition becomes more common with age, and is another major cause of tooth sensitivity. Gum recession, also called tooth recession, exposes the roots of your teeth, which are naturally more sensitive to extreme temperatures. Gingivitis, smoking, tobacco (in all its forms) and crooked teeth that are hard to keep clean are all risk factors. Keep in mind advanced gum disease – also called chronic periodontitis – affects nearly half of American adults over 30 years of age, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). This leads to loss in the bone and gum tissue that support the teeth.
3. Cracks, Cavities and Weak Fillings
Cavities from advanced tooth decay occur when bacteria that live in the mouth produce acids that can destroy enamel. Once enamel erodes, that acid can seep into the soft dentin layer and produce quite extreme levels of sensitivity. Cracked tooth syndrome also exposes the dentin, causing intermittent pain when you eat and drink – making it much harder to enjoy your spiced chai tea. In addition, fillings can weaken over time and allow food, bacteria and warmed red wine to leak into the tooth. This primes you for irritation when the liquid passes the space your dentist originally cleared out.
Preventing Sensitivity This Season
Fortunately, you can do a fair amount to prevent a tooth sensitive to hot items from ruining your favorite holiday drinks. Here are some steps you can take to ward off pain, as well as improve your overall dental health.
- Switch to a soft-bristled brush and an over-the-counter desensitizing toothpaste. A softer toothbrush is easier on your enamel, whereas desensitizing toothpaste helps to block the transmission of an uncomfortable sensation to the nerve, as explained by the ADA. Try brushes like the one mentioned above, and Colgate® Sensitive Prevent & Repair™ toothpaste to further reduce your sensitivity.
- Stay committed to regular teeth cleanings and exams. Good oral hygiene includes visits with your dental hygienist every six months and your dentist at least twice a year. They can spot problems such as gum disease or a leaky filling early into their effect, and remove chronic plaque or tartar buildups that wear down the enamel over time.
- Consider a fluoride gel. If you're feeling especially sensitive lately, ask your dentist about this form of treatment. It can greatly strengthen your enamel, and is often available to you when you meet the dentist for a cleaning. Fluoride gel has been shown to reduce sensitivity in patients undergoing whitening procedures, which can cause sensitivity to teeth, according to National Institutes of Health (NIH).
- Use a straw when drinking acidic beverages. Drinking from a straw for this purpose can limit contact with your teeth and prevent enamel erosion. Mayo Clinic also recommends that you avoid brushing your teeth for 30 minutes following an acidic meal, at which point enamel is especially delicate. Giving it time to slightly recalcify can make a big difference.
Occasional sensitivity isn't a reason to panic, but constantly sensitive teeth can spoil holiday fun – and lead to more pain if left untreated. Take these steps so you can eat, drink and be merry this season.