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Imagine: a hot summer day, and you’ve just gotten a waffle cone full of delicious soft-serve ice cream. Your excitement is tangible. You go to take a big ‘ole lick of the delicious treat and then OW. Your teeth! Suddenly your dreams of a cold dessert are dashed. But how? How could something so soft hurt so much?

If that scene hits a little too close to home for you, you probably have tooth sensitivity. It can be triggered by both hot and cold food & drinks–like ice cream, smoothies, or hot cocoa–or by acid–like in coffee or orange juice. If you’re worried that this means you’ll need to give up your daily iced coffee, never fear. There are some steps you can take to lessen your tooth sensitivity, many of which can be done at home.

First, what causes tooth sensitivity? There are a number of conditions whose symptoms are sensitivity. Teeth are composed of 3 layers: enamel, dentin, and pulp. Dentin, the middle layer, is filled with tubules of nerve endings. In healthy teeth, the enamel protects the dentin and thus covers the tubules. If that enamel begins to wear away enough the dentin is exposed, allowing fluid to get in the tubes and irritate the nerve endings. So when you eat something cold, hot, or acidic and it stings, that’s the substance hitting exposed nerve endings.

Weakened enamel can be caused by a whole long list of things: from too much acidity, too much sugar, teeth grinding, brushing too hard, hard candy, and that’s only a few! This is why bi-annual dentist appointments are so important. They can determine whether the cause of sensitivity is from usual wear-and-tear, or if it’s from a cavity, abscess, fracture, or other more serious concern.

After you speak to your dentist about any tooth sensitivity, they will provide some options for healing. Enamel can be strengthened so the remaining layers can protect the dentin. Over-the-counter products like sensitive toothpastes & mouthwashes work to strengthen enamel. And switching to a soft-bristled toothbrush can help protect your remaining enamel. If you grind your teeth, talk with your dentist about getting a night guard.

Another way to ensure that your teeth stay protected is through fluoride treatments. You’ve probably had this at the dentist, whenever you’ve gotten a cleaning. Fluoride is a mineral that helps rebuild enamel, and is in most toothpastes and sometimes in the treated tap water in your house. When you receive a fluoride treatment at the dentist, they apply a more concentrated quantity than is found in water or toothpaste, making it a stronger topical treatment with longer lasting results.

Tooth sensitivity can be frustrating when it prevents you from enjoying all your favorite foods and drinks. If you think your teeth may be developing sensitivity, talk to your dentist during your next appointment. And as always, if the pain is severe, please call your dentist.