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Is One Sensitive Tooth A Serious Issue?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

It's normal to occasionally wince when eating ice cream or a hot soup, but the less-fleeting pain of sensitive teeth is hard to ignore. Discomfort due to an extreme temperature is a common complaint of almost 40 million people, according to the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), and often affects more than one tooth. However, if you are suffering from just one sensitive tooth, it may be a sign of a more advanced problem.

Causes of Sensitivity

Teeth sensitivity, sometimes called dentin hypersensitivity, occurs when tooth enamel wears away to reveal the tooth's inner layer of dentin. This is often a result of overzealous toothbrushing, a stiff-bristled brush, or the use of overly abrasive toothpaste. Other factors known to erode tooth enamel include acidic foods and beverages, acid reflux, bulimia, or a similar condition that causes stomach acid to enter the mouth. Sensitivity can also be a symptom of more serious issues like tooth decay or a fractured tooth.

Why Just One Spot?

Keep in mind that grinding or clenching your teeth can cause nerve irritation. Recent tooth whitening can also cause localized sensitivity. Lastly, periodontal, also known as gum disease, can cause the gums to recede in one particular area, with the resulting exposed root being sensitive to hot and cold.

Treatment Options for Dentin Hypersensitivity

Suppose your sensitivity is not due to decay or any other oral disease. In that case, your dental professional may recommend a desensitizing toothpaste that helps seal off the dentin tubules (connected nerves) that cause the discomfort. It usually takes at least a month of regular use to notice results.

In the meantime, be willing to accept an in-office desensitizing treatment or prescription fluoride gel, which you can apply to the sensitive areas after brushing. And, of course, your dental professional will work with you to correct any bad habits that may have contributed to the problem.

Tooth Decay

If one tooth, in particular, bothers you, your dental professional will examine the tooth and ask you to describe your symptoms. An X-ray will help determine if tooth decay, also known as dental caries or other common conditions, could be the problem.

In this case, acids produced by the bacteria in the dental plaque accumulated on the tooth can eventually dissolve its enamel, exposing the dentin layer. And because dentin is filled with tiny nerve endings, you may experience temperature sensitivity and pain when biting down or consuming hot or cold food and drinks. Once your dentist removes the decay and fills the tooth with either an amalgam or tooth-colored filling, you should be pain-free. If the decay has destroyed more of the tooth structure, a full-coverage crown might be needed.

Loose or Broken Filling

Unfortunately, fillings don't last forever, and when they break or become loose, you may experience sensitivity due to bacteria getting underneath, causing the tooth to decay further. Luckily, a new filling or crown can fix the problem.

Cracked Tooth

A cracked tooth may not be visible to the naked eye. It may not even show on X-rays, making a diagnosis difficult. However, the American Association of Endodontists (AAE) says a common sign of a cracked tooth is sharp pain when biting down and disappears after releasing that bite. Cracks involving a break around a filling can be repaired with a new filling or crown, but when a crack extends into the tooth's pulp, you may need root canal treatment before a crown can be placed. Ultimately, a crack that extends below the gumline and into the tooth's root will need to be removed.


An abscessed tooth occurs when the pulp of your tooth – which is made up of nerve and blood vessels – becomes infected. Symptoms can include fever, persistent pain, and facial swelling. Usually, there's pus-filled swelling at the root tip, which drains periodically and gives you a bad taste in your mouth. You will need root canal treatment to save any tooth that has abscessed.

Recent Treatment

Dental procedures, like removing deep decay or preparing a tooth prepared for a crown, can inflame the nerves within the pulp tissue. This can cause temporary sensitivity to hot and cold, but it usually dissipates after a week or two.

Whether you have one sensitive tooth or several, it's wise to see your dentist right away. Early diagnosis and treatment can ensure that small problems won't progress into more serious dental complications or tooth loss.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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