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When Your Teeth Say “Ouch!”: Dealing with Sensitivity

It’s no fun to bite into an ice cream cone and have your mouth say “Ow!” instead of “Yum!”

woman staring at an ice cream cone in her hand, when your teeth say ouch dealing with sensitivity

1 in 8 people have sensitive teeth.

The cause may be worn enamel, gum recession, a bad reaction to a toothpaste or mouthwash, or a dental procedure that’s recently been done (or one that should be done). Unfortunately, some generally healthy practices — such as eating citrus fruits or crunchy almonds, or even brushing one’s teeth — can also aggravate sensitivity.

Fortunately, there are ways to minimize pain and damage.

Rule Out Worst-Case Scenarios

If tooth sensitivity attacks suddenly and lasts more than a day or two, you may have a cavity, chipped tooth, or other undiagnosed oral problem. Make an appointment with your dentist to find and fix any issues.

Watch Your Diet

There are at least four ways diet may contribute to tooth sensitivity:

  • Many less-than-healthful foods — e.g., sweets and white breads — stick to teeth and encourage plaque buildup.
  • Healthy but acidic foods — citrus fruits, strawberries, pickles, and grapes — can erode enamel and irritate exposed nerves. When they’re consumed in liquid form, the effect is even worse.
  • Hard and crunchy foods — whole almonds and baby carrots — can wear down or even crack enamel.
  • Very cold (or hot) foods and liquids induce the shock of sudden temperature change, which jolts nerves and may crack thin enamel.

If any of that describes your regular diet, make a change for a week or two. Try bananas instead of grapefruit with breakfast, for instance, or drink coffee through a sip-top or a straw, to see whether your tooth sensitivity lessens. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to give up your favorite foods. If you want to keep the foregoing items on your menu, keep reading.

Rinse Your Mouth After Eating but Before Brushing

Taking a brush to your teeth immediately after consuming acidic foods will scrub the acid into your enamel, increasing the corrosive effect — and ditto with sugars and anything that may leave abrasive particles. End every meal with a glass of water. Swish it around evenly in your mouth to wash away what you can before brushing.

Soften the Hard Foods

Almonds and carrots are great for your overall health, but they can put a serious strain on your tooth enamel. Cook or soak them before biting in — just enough to reduce the hard crack to a gentle crunch. Or take them grated, diced, or slivered instead of in full-size pieces.

Watch What You Bite Down On

Healthful-but-hard foods aren’t the only ones that can break tooth enamel; no hard candy should ever be bitten into. Nor should ice, which combines hardness and cold.

Floss Nightly

Everyone knows it, and too many neglect it: Floss your teeth daily to dig out food particles the toothbrush misses — especially if you have gum recession, which leaves more open spaces.

That said, overenthusiastic flossing can increase recession and sensitivity. Work gently around the gum line; don’t press hard. Use shred-resistant floss — cheap brands may leave new particles stuck between your teeth — or invest in an electric water flosser.

If you ever draw blood while flossing, call your dentist immediately — bleeding gums may indicate periodontal disease.

Brush Right

As with flossing, so with brushing: Going about it roughly can do more harm than good. Use a gentle hand and spend at least two minutes going over the gum lines (not just the enamel) thoroughly. Sometimes the best gift you can give your mouth is an electric toothbrush, most of which come set for ideal pressure and angle.

However, if you have sensitive teeth, brushing itself may induce the worst pain. Try changing toothpaste, cutting down acidic foods, and brushing with lukewarm (not cold) water. If the pain persists, and especially if you are becoming genuinely afraid of brushing, see your dentist for professional advice.

Choose the Right Toothpaste

There are toothpastes sold for many specific purposes, including sensitivity reduction (these typically contain ingredients that help seal nerve channels in the teeth and gums). Some sensitivity toothpastes are sold by prescription, so ask your dentist for recommendations. Follow all directions carefully.

Other toothpastes may aggravate sensitivity; “whitening” brands frequently contain chemicals or abrasive substances that are hard on thin enamel. If white teeth are important to you, get advice from your dentist on balancing whitening and sensitivity treatments.

Plan for No-Brushing Periods

It’s not always possible to find time and equipment for real brushing, especially during long hours in an office or other public places. When packing or buying lunch, avoid foods that stick, that stain, or that have high acid or sugar content. Softer, fibrous foods that require active chewing (which stimulates saliva flow) are best for minimizing plaque-buildup risk. High-calcium foods are also helpful. Choose salads (with minimal dressing), cheeses, and fish or soy proteins.

To further reduce your risk of tooth damage, follow up whatever you eat with a large drink of water. If you have 20 minutes of relative solitude available (for politeness sake), chewing sugar-free gum with acid-neutralizing xylitol will clean your mouth further.

Get a Mouth Guard

Another common contributor to tooth sensitivity is grinding. If you regularly wake up with a sore jaw, you may be over-exercising your teeth in your sleep. The best preventive measure is a mouth guard that fits over your upper teeth to reduce friction. Generic one-size-fits-all guards are available, but it’s better to invest in a custom-fitted one made from a mold of your own teeth.

For Women Only

Tooth sensitivity tends to increase in the week immediately before menstrual periods and during the early days of the period itself. Be extra careful to brush, floss, and limit acidic foods at that time. Ideally, schedule dental appointments shortly after the end of a period to minimize pain and bleeding during treatment.

In Extreme Circumstances

Even with all the above measures, some tooth sensitivity requires drastic treatment. In the worst cases, a dentist may recommend surgery — gum grafts or even a root canal — to resolve the problem. Such procedures are uncomfortable and expensive, but the relief is usually worth it.

Whatever the source of your own sensitivity problem, or however it is eventually resolved, remember: There’s no substitute for regular visits to a good dentist!

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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.

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