Alice Lesch Kelly

If you scream -- for pain, not pleasure -- when you have ice cream, you’re not alone: Forty million adults in the U.S. have sensitive teeth.

Pain is triggered by highly sensitive nerves that reside deep inside a tooth. In healthy teeth, these nerves are shielded by a porous tissue called dentin, which is protected by your gums and by a tough outer layer of enamel.

When microscopic holes in the dentin, called, tubules, are exposed, however, food, drinks, heat or cold can irritate the nerves and cause pain. 

Sensitive teeth hurt, but you’re not doomed to never eat another fudgesicle again. Here are the best ways to find relief.

1. Use toothpaste formulated for sensitive teeth

Several ingredients, including fluoride and potassium nitrate, have been shown to reduce sensitivity by blocking pain signals transmitted from the nerves to the brain. Another ingredient to look for is stabilized stannous fluoride. It works differently, preventing sensitivity by blocking dentinal tubules. Follow directions for use on the packaging and don’t give up -- it may take up to two weeks to work.

2. Lighten up

While it may seem counterintuitive, brushing harder is worse for your teeth, not better. Always brush gently, using a soft-bristled brush, to avoid injuring your gums and exposing tooth roots. Hint: If you recently replaced your toothbrush and the bristles are already pushed out sideways, you’re probably brushing too hard.

3. Avoid acidic foods and drinks

Soda, citrus juices, sour candy and even pickles contain high amounts of acid that can erode tooth enamel. If it’s too difficult to eliminate them entirely, swish water around in your mouth after you eat or drink.

4. See your dentist

“The underlying cause must be addressed to fully treat the problem of sensitive teeth,” says Dr. Elisa Mello, clinical assistant professor at New York University College of Dentistry. Tooth decay, receding gums or tooth grinding could be a main, treatable source of your woes. Troubleshoot with your dentist, who may suggest such in-office treatments as extra-strong fluoride gels, sealants, surgical gum grafts, a root canal, fillings or crowns.

Alice Lesch Kelly is a freelance medical writer who has covered women's health, nutrition and oral health for print publications and the Web, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, More, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and VIV. She is the co-author of four books on women's health.


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Health - Best Ways to Soothe Sensitive Teeth