What is tooth sensitivity and how do I know if I have it?

Tooth sensitivity is pain that you may experience as a result of wearing away of the tooth surface or gum tissue. The most common cause of tooth sensitivity in adults is a result of receding gums which causes the tooth roots to become exposed. The roots are not covered by enamel and therefore the tiny channels which lead to the tooth’s nerve center is exposed. If you are experiencing tooth sensitivity it is very important that you consult your dentist as soon as possible because this problem may lead to other oral health issues making you vulnerable to tooth decay and gum disease.

You may be experiencing tooth sensitivity if you feel a sharp painful sensation in your teeth after drinking or eating something that is hot or cold. This is a condition that affects one out of four adults, often coming and going throughout their life.

When you visit your dentist they will start by enquire about your dental hygiene practices. The dentist will then look for any signs of tooth decay and gum disease following which they will check for exposed roots and use a metal instrument called an explorer to test for tooth sensitivity.

Preventing tooth sensitivity

What are the causes of tooth sensitivity?

Incorrect brushing of your teeth

Brushing too hard or using a hard-bristled toothbrush can negatively affect your teeth by causing the enamel to wear down and allow the dentin to be exposed. It may also cause the gum tissue to recede.

Gum disease

If you suffer from gum disease, uch as gingivitis, it can cause the gum tissue to become inflamed and sore, leading to tooth sensitivity due to the loss of supporting ligaments, exposing the root surface and hence allowing stimuli to reach the nerve of the tooth.

Cracked teeth

Chipped or broken teeth can easily become filled with plaque and so the bacteria may be able to enter and inflame the pulp.

Teeth grinding and clenching

Teeth grinding may wear down the enamel and expose the underlying dentin.

Teeth whitening products or toothpaste with baking soda and peroxide

These products cause tooth sensitivity to varying extents.

Age and gender

Tooth sensitivity is highest in women between 25 and 30.


Some over the counter mouthwashes contain acids that can make your tooth sensitivity worse.

Acidic foods

Regular consumption of foods that have a high acid content can cause enamel erosion.

Dental procedures

Sometimes, tooth sensitivity may be seen following dental procedures like tooth restoration, root planning and crown placement. This kind of sensitivity is temporary.

What is the treatment plan for tooth sensitivity?

Your dentist may use different treatments depending on the cause of your tooth sensitivity.

  • Desensitising products to relieve the symptoms.
  • Fluoride rinse or gel may be placed on the affected teeth regularly with a gap or one or two weeks between each application. This form of treatment will also help build up protection around the teeth.
  • A filling may be put in place around the area where the gum and tooth meet in order to cover exposed dentine.
  • You may require a root canal treatment if none of these methods work as the tooth’s nerve may have been severely damaged.
  • If the tooth sensitivity is a result of teeth grinding or clenching then your dentist may provide you with a mouth guard for the night.
  • If the tooth sensitivity is caused by a new amalgam filling and the symptoms do not go away after a few weeks your dentist will polish the filling to relieve the symptoms.

How can I prevent tooth sensitivity?

There are many means by which you can prevent tooth sensitivity.

Good oral hygiene

Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss at least once a day.

Use a soft bristled toothbrush

This will ensure that there is less abrasion to the tooth surface and less irritation to the gums. Replace the brush every three months.

Watch your food intake

Reduce your intake of highly acid foods like citrus fruits. If you drink citric fruit juices, use a straw to limit the exposure of the juice to the teeth.

Use fluoridated dental products

Daily use of fluoridated mouth rinse may decrease sensitivity.

Avoid grinding or clenching your teeth

If this continues to be a problem you should ask your dentist about using a mouth guard during the night.

Visit your dentist regularly

You should be visiting your dentist every six months for teeth cleaning, oral hygiene instructions and fluoride treatment.