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Why teeth become sensitive

Have you ever experienced a sudden sharp tooth pain while having a nice bowl of ice cream on a hot summer day? What about on a cool evening when sipping a cup of hot cocoa? Maybe you've even felt pain from a cold wind against your teeth. If so, you are one of many people who experience tooth sensitivity, also known as dentinal hypersensitivity. It's estimated that tooth sensitivity affects approximately half the population.

Tooth sensitivity is tooth discomfort or pain that is triggered by foods and drinks that are hot, cold, sweet, or sour. Breathing in cold air can also be a trigger. The pain affects one or more teeth and is often described as sharp, sudden, and shooting deep into the nerve. This condition often peaks in adults 20 to 30 years old, and then rises again in their 50s. So what can you do about it? It's important to first understand why it happens and what the common triggers are before you can control it.

Why teeth become sensitive

Tooth sensitivity is usually caused by worn tooth enamel or an exposed tooth root. Enamel is the hard layer of the tooth that protects the teeth above the gum line. Under the gum line, cementum protects the tooth root. Underneath these layers is dentin, which is softer and made up of microscopic tubes called dentinal tubules. These tubules run from the center of the tooth to the outside surface. When the dentin is exposed, the tubules allow heat, cold, and acidity to stimulate the nerve inside the tooth and cause the pain associated with sensitive teeth.

Triggers include:

  • temperature changes from hot or cold foods or drinks
  • physical changes from clenching or teeth grinding 
  • acidic foods such citrus fruits and juices, wine, or carbonated drinks (e.g., soda or sparkling water)
  • improper brushing habits that wear away the enamel or cause gum recession
  • poor oral hygiene
  • gingivitis
  • cavities
  • fractured teeth or fillings
  • root canal problems
  • recent dental procedures such as crown placements or new fillings
  • recent treatment for periodontal (gum) disease

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2024. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

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