Although brushing and flossing are everyday habits, sore or sensitive gums can make both a painful experience.

Gum sensitivity or soreness can be mild or severe. Some people might shrug off mild sensitivity as a minor annoyance. But sore gums can be a sign of a serious problem. It’s important to understand why sensitivity occurs, as well as the symptoms and treatments for soreness.

If you have sensitive gums, you might notice soreness whenever you brush or floss your teeth. The pain may gradually subside or linger. Sometimes, sensitive gums are accompanied by:

  • swelling
  • redness
  • bleeding
  • bad breath

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between tooth sensitivity and gum sensitivity. Depending on the location of your pain, you may have difficulty determining whether the problem comes from your gums or teeth.

If you have tooth sensitivity, however, you may also have pain when eating and drinking cold or hot items. The underlying causes of tooth sensitivity can include:

  • a cavity
  • lose filling
  • worn down dental enamel

Brushing and flossing too hard can sometimes cause gum sensitivity. In this case, you might notice soreness during or after caring for your teeth.

Other times, sensitivity is due to dentures or braces. This type of soreness may be temporary. It may resolve once your mouth adjusts to the dental application.

But these aren’t the only possible causes of sensitive gums. The underlying issue can be another problem or condition, including those not related to oral hygiene. Here are some other causes of gum sensitivity:

1. Gum disease

Gum disease is inflammation in the gums. It affects the tissue that holds teeth in place. Poor dental hygiene can lead to gum disease. It occurs when plaque accumulates on the teeth. Plaque is a sticky film containing bacteria.

Gingivitis is the earliest stage of gum disease. Symptoms include painful and swollen gums that may bleed easily. If not treated, this condition can advance to periodontitis.

Periodontitis occurs when plaque spreads below the gum line. This triggers a strong inflammatory response in the tissue supporting the teeth and bones. In severe cases, it could result in tooth loss if the gums separate from the teeth.

2. Vitamin C deficiency (scurvy)

Scurvy is a severe vitamin C deficiency. It occurs when you don’t get enough vitamin C from your diet, or when your body has difficulty absorbing the vitamin.

Symptoms of a deficiency include sore, swollen, and bleeding gums. You may also experience irritability, fatigue, joint pain, and skin bruising.

3. Smoking

Smoking doesn’t only increase the risk for lung cancer and stroke. Tobacco can also damage your gums and lead to gum disease, triggering gum sensitivity.

4. Diabetes

Uncontrolled diabetes can also affect oral health because too much glucose (sugar) in your saliva contributes to the growth of plaque and bacteria in the mouth. If plaque isn’t removed, gum disease may develop.

5. Hormonal changes

Hormonal changes can also result in gum sensitivity. This can occur during pregnancy, puberty, menstruation, and menopause. Hormonal fluctuations can cause increased blood flow to the gums, making them more tender and sensitive.

6. Oral infections

Canker sores, mouth ulcers, and oral infections can also irritate your gums, causing soreness. Causes of canker sores include:

  • vitamin deficiencies
  • stress
  • autoimmune diseases
  • acidic foods

Oral infections can include oral thrush or herpes. Symptoms might include shallow sore or white lesions on the gums accompanied by pain.

7. Stress

Too much stress can lead to an elevated cortisol level. This is a stress hormone. A high level of cortisol over a prolonged period causes inflammation in different parts of the body, including your gums.

Treatment for gum sensitivity depends on the underlying cause. Sometimes, you can treat sensitivity at home. Other times, you’ll need to see your dentist.

Home treatments

  • Improve your dental hygiene. Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss at least once a day. If necessary, ask your dentist to demonstrate proper cleaning techniques. Be gentle. Use a soft-bristled brush to avoid gum irritation.
  • Use antiseptic mouthwash. This helps kill bacteria in your mouth and soothes irritated gums.
  • Get enough vitamin C. Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables or take a multivitamin. The recommended daily amount of vitamin C for adults is between 65 and 90 milligrams (mg), up to 2,000 mg per day, says the Mayo Clinic.
  • Drink more water. If you’re unable to brush after a meal, drink water to help wash food and bacteria from your teeth and mouth.
  • Quit smoking. Doing so will heal your gums and stop gum sensitivity. If you can’t stop cold turkey, look into temporary nicotine replacement therapy, or check out apps to help you quit.
  • Practice stress management. Get plenty of sleep, exercise on a regular basis, learn how to say no, and don’t overcommit yourself.
  • Use over-the-counter medications. Some mouth sores go away on their own without treatment. But you can use over-the-counter oral-numbing creams like Orajel to ease sensitivity until a sore heals (but don’t use it or similar products on infants). Or you can take over-the-counter pain relievers. These include ibuprofen (Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Take medication as directed on the package.

Dentist-prescribed treatments

See a dentist if soreness or sensitivity doesn’t improve or worsens despite changing your habits. This could be a sign of an infection or gum disease.

If you have early or advanced gum disease, you’ll need a deep-cleaning dental procedure to remove plaque and tartar and reverse sensitivity.

Sometimes, sensitivity or bleeding is a sign of an autoimmune disease, leukemia, or a blood disorder.

You’ll need additional testing if your doctor suspects an underlying medical condition. This may include blood tests and imaging tests to check for widespread inflammation or the possibility of cancerous cells. Until you receive a diagnosis, your dentist may offer triamcinolone (Kenalog). This is a prescription-strength, oral anti-inflammatory medication.

When dentures or braces cause gum pain, your dentist may prescribe or recommend over-the-counter anesthetics containing topical benzocaine. Don’t give any medications containing benzocaine to infants, however.

Some over-the-counter anesthetics include:

  • Anbesol
  • Orajel
  • Chloraseptic
  • Xylocaine

Your dentist can also prescribe an oral antifungal medication or an oral antibiotic if you have thrush or an infection that affects the gums.

Soreness or sensitivity is treatable and reversible, but you must identify the problem and see a dentist, if necessary. Don’t ignore gum sensitivity that doesn’t improve, even if it’s minor. Take steps to improve your oral health and consult your dentist before pain worsens.