Tooth Sensitive to Hot or Cold? What It Means and How to Help

There you are, enjoying your morning coffee, when a sudden jolt of pain comes from one of your teeth. As unpleasant, painful and disruptive to your morning routine as it is, a tooth sensitive to hot food or drink can be more than a minor inconvenience. A change in the way your teeth react to hot and cold often means there's a much more advanced problem happening in your mouth. And identifying the cause of this sudden pain can go a long way to treating the issue so you can go back to your morning meal.

Causes of Sensitivity

The pain or sensitivity you feel can be attributed to number of oral health issues. Consider these potential causes, all of which can help you (and your dentist) address the problem efficiently:

  • Enamel erosion. Teeth are protected by enamel, which is their first defense against hot, cold, sticky and abrasive items. When this enamel wears down, it can cause tooth decay, which exposes sensitive nerves within the pulp of the teeth. Enamel can become weaker with age, an acidic or sugary diet and a history of acid reflux disease.
  • Cavities. Fissures in your teeth can expose the same tender nerves, so cavities – both big and small – can be the culprit as well. In fact, sensitivity to hot and cold foods is often a warning sign that a cavity is forming and it's time to make an appointment to see your dentist. Similarly, fillings that repair cavities can become loose or fall out, causing hypersensitivity where the original cavity was cleared out.
  • Receding gums. Beneath your enamel, explains the American Dental Association (ADA), your teeth are coated in another material called dentin, which is more sensitive and contains tiny tubes that make the tooth more susceptible to sensitivity. When gums recede, this dentin is exposed, resulting in familiar pain. Receding gums are typically a side-effect of gum disease or gingivitis.

Regardless of the cause, a tooth sensitive to hot or cold is always a symptom of a broader oral health issue, which means it can be treated with behavioral changes for a pain-free day. Consider the following treatment options with the help of your dentist:

What You Can Do

Products such as Colgate® Enamel Health™ Sensitivity Relief toothpaste contain potassium nitrate, an ingredient that, according to the ADA, helps to "depolarize" nerve endings in the teeth. This can effectively block your sensitivity triggers and help strengthen tooth enamel to banish pain from these types of food. Sensitivity toothpastes can be purchased over the counter, but it is still a good idea to discuss the condition with your dentist.

When You'll Need Office Treatment

If sensitivity is the result of a cavity, loose filling or exposed nerves, you'll need dental treatment to get rid of it. Therefore, your dentist may need to fill a cavity, replace an existing filling or apply a crown over the exposed nerves for the irritation to subside. He or she can also use bonding materials to fix cracked teeth from a physical incident – which may have caused tooth damage you weren't aware of.

Root Canal

In some cases, sensitivity can be the result of an infection deep into the tooth. If this is the cause of your sensitivity, your dentist may even suggest a root canal. But don't worry; the modern procedure simply cleans out the infection from the tooth, and the tooth is then filled with a material called gutta-percha before being capped. A dental infection can be very serious, so the American Association of Endodontists (AAE) suggests seeing your dentist if your sensitivity lingers more than 30 seconds after coming in contact with an extreme temperature.

Of course, caring for your teeth through a regular oral hygiene routine can help stave off sensitivity due to decay and gum disease. Even with the best care, however, sensitivity can be the result of a cracked tooth or regular wear and tear. By defining your symptoms and seeing your dentist, you can come up with a solution that results in healthy teeth – and comfort when having your morning coffee.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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Common Conditions During ADULTHOOD

As we get older, dental care for adults is crucial. Here are a few of the conditions to be aware of:

Gum disease – if your home care routine of brushing and flossing has slipped and you have skipped your regular dental cleanings, bacterial plaque and tartar can build up on your teeth. The plaque and tartar, if left untreated, may eventually cause irreparable damage to your jawbone and support structures, and could lead to tooth loss.

Oral cancer – according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, men over the age of 40 have the greatest risk for oral cancer. About approximately 43,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer of the mouth, tongue or throat area, and the ACS estimates that about 7,000 people will die from these cancers. The use of tobacco products and alcohol increases the risk of oral cancer. Most oral cancers are first diagnosed by the dentist during a routine checkup.

Dental fillings break down – fillings have a life expectancy of eight to 10 years. However, they can last 20 years or longer. When the fillings in your mouth start to break down, food and bacteria can get underneath them and can cause decay deep in the tooth.