Why Are My Teeth Sensitive to Cold?

Medically reviewed by Christine Frank, DDS on November 17, 2017Written by Valencia Higuera on November 17, 2017

Overview

You might enjoy a nice cold drink or ice cream on a hot summer day. But if your teeth are sensitive to coldness, coming in contact with these foods and beverages can be a painful experience.

Teeth sensitivity to cold isn’t uncommon. In fact, about 40 million adults in the United States experience some type of tooth sensitivity. Understanding potential causes of sensitive teeth is key to alleviating pain. If left untreated, sensitivity can worsen and progress to the point where you avoid certain foods and drinks.

What are the symptoms of sensitive teeth?

The main symptom of tooth sensitivity is discomfort after eating or drinking something cold. This pain can occur suddenly, and the degree of sensitivity can be mild, moderate, or severe.

Some people with tooth sensitivity also have pain while brushing or flossing, so it’s important to find a cause and start treatment. Experiencing pain while brushing or flossing may lead to poor dental hygiene. This can trigger further dental problems such as gum disease and cavities.

Causes of sensitive teeth

Tooth sensitivity can be minor or indicate a serious dental problem. You can’t diagnose tooth sensitivity yourself. If you have any sensitivity to coldness (or hotness), speak with your dentist. A dental examination can help your doctor determine the underlying cause, as well as the most appropriate treatment to eliminate pain. Causes of tooth sensitivity to cold may include:

Forceful brushing

Vigorously brushing your teeth with a hard-bristled toothbrush can gradually wear down tooth enamel. This is the outer layer of the tooth which protects the inner layer.

Worn tooth enamel can gradually expose the dentin layer of your teeth, which is the second layer where the nerve endings are. Drinking or eating something cold could irritate the nerves and cause sharp, intermittent pain in the mouth.

Acidic foods

Acidic foods can also wear down tooth enamel and expose nerve endings. Examples of acidic foods include:

  • lemons
  • oranges
  • grapefruit
  • kiwi

Consume acidic foods in moderation, especially if you develop sensitivity.

Tooth-whitening toothpaste

Whitening toothpaste can give you a brighter smile, but you may be sensitive to chemicals in these whitening agents. Regular use can cause discomfort and sensitivity. Mouthwashes containing alcohol can also make the teeth sensitive to cold.

Gum disease

Regular brushing, flossing, and dental cleanings are important for removing plaque and avoiding gum disease.

If plaque builds up on the teeth or along the gumline, your gums can become infected and inflamed. This can eventually damage gum tissue, causing gums to recede and expose nerve endings on the root.

Grinding your teeth

Grinding your teeth while sleeping can also wear down tooth enamel and expose dentin. If not corrected, teeth grinding can cause sensitivity whenever you drink or eat something cold.

Tooth decay

An untreated cavity or a worn dental filling may also expose nerve endings in a tooth. And when exposed to coldness, you may feel pain or sensitivity in the affected tooth.

Ways to treat sensitive teeth

You don’t have to live with sensitivity to cold. Different options are available to completely eliminate sensitivity. Treatment depends on the cause of sensitivity, which is why you should speak with your dentist and have a dental examination. Treatments to stop pain and sensitivity might include:

Fluoride treatment

Your dentist may recommend a fluoride treatment to strengthen your tooth enamel. You may also receive a prescription strength fluoride paste and a fluoride rinse.

Dietary changes

In addition to fluoride treatments, eliminating tooth sensitivity may require dietary changes. This includes eliminating acidic foods from your diet, which can weaken tooth enamel.

Healthier brushing habits

Changing how you brush your teeth can also eliminate sensitivity to cold. Switch from a hard-bristled toothbrush to a soft-bristled toothbrush, and don’t brush too vigorously.

Be gentle and vary the motion of your toothbrush. Light bleeding while brushing can be a sign of brushing too hard.

Wear a mouth guard

Signs of grinding your teeth while sleeping include face pain, headaches, earache, and a stiff jaw. Speak with your doctor to see if you need a mouth guard.

A mouth guard prevents you from grinding and clenching your teeth. If your enamel is worn, your doctor may also recommend fluoride treatments or a fluoride paste to strengthen the enamel.

Dental procedures

Certain dental procedures can also alleviate tooth sensitivity. In cases of exposed nerve endings, your doctor may apply a special resin to cover sensitive, exposed dentin and stop your pain. If you have gum disease and gum recession, a surgical gum graft can protect or cover exposed roots, too.

A gum graft alleviates pain by removing gum tissue from another part of the mouth and attaching it to an exposed area. Your dentist can also eliminate sensitivity by filling a cavity or performing a root canal to remove decay or infection from inside a problem tooth.

Q:

Ever since I had a permanent crown put in, my tooth has experienced sensitivity to cold. Why is that?

A:

The tooth could be sensitive to cold due to:

  • the bite being high
  • grinding or clenching
  • excessive cement
  • slight recession of the gum tissue exposing the edge of the root
  • nerve damage

If it lasts more than a few weeks, you should have it checked by your dentist.

Christine Frank, DDSAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

Prevention and outlook for sensitive teeth

Treatment can completely get rid of sensitivity to cold. You’ll need to speak with your dentist and get to the root of the problem before discussing treatment options. Keep in mind that tooth sensitivity may return if you don’t modify your dental habits.

To avoid future problems, continue practicing good dental hygiene. This includes brushing and flossing daily, and scheduling dental cleanings every six months. Also, limit acidic foods, use teeth whitening products sparingly, and wear a mouth guard if you grind your teeth.

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