You’re sitting on your porch on a hot day in the middle of summer. You reach for an ice-cold beverage to quench your thirst and as you take a sip there is a sharp pain in one of your teeth. Does this situation sound familiar? If you had never been sensitive to cold before and suddenly have an experience like this, or if you have had this kind of sensitivity for a while and want to know what is causing it, we are here to answer that question for you.
Though they are hard on the outside, our teeth are made of more than just enamel. There are actually several layers to the tooth, of which the enamel is the exterior protection. If the tooth enamel were not there you would barely be able to even open your mouth to expose it to air, let alone eat and drink anything. Beneath the enamel is a layer called dentin. Under the dentin is the pulp of the tooth which is softer and connected to the root and nerve that run through your jawbone.
If the tooth enamel gets damaged or worn away then the dentin can be exposed. Inside the dentin are tiny liquid-filled tubes that provide feedback to the nerve. When the dentin is exposed and a cold sensation is felt the liquid in these tubes moves. This causes a sharp and painful sensation in the nerve. This is the simple reason why your tooth may be sensitive to the cold.
There are several possibilities where the enamel is worn down to the point that dentin is either exposed or much closer to the surface. A common reason this may happen, especially in the molars, is if you grind your teeth at night. The official term for this is bruxism. It is actually a very common condition and many people do not realize that they do it due to being asleep at the time. In many cases, bruxism only becomes obvious when someone starts having pain in their teeth or jaw, has headaches upon waking up or is told by a partner or someone else who has observed them sleep that they have been grinding their teeth at night.
Bruxism is a simple problem to fix at home. Dentists will usually recommend a night guard if you begin complaining of sensitivity but there is no obvious damage to your teeth. While a dentist can fit you for a molded night guard that is a perfect fit for your teeth, there are also inexpensive options to be found at your drugstore. You can purchase a self-molding night guard and create your own fairly simply. In both cases, the night guard fits to your top jaw and provides a thick layer of cushioning between the top and bottom teeth which absorbs the shock when you grind your teeth at night. If you are a teeth grinder you may also wish to try some stress relieving techniques since anxiety and stress tend to exacerbate teeth grinding. You may also want to make sure you are not clenching your jaw during the day in times of stress or boredom.
Another reason your tooth might be sensitive to cold is if the root has somehow become exposed. The root does not have as much protection from sensation as the crown of your tooth. It relies on the gums rather than a thick layer of enamel to act as a buffer between the dentin and external stimuli. Roots may become exposed if you have damaged or recessed gums. Damage may occur due to some form of injury or improper brushing or flossing technique.
The gums may recede at all stages of gum disease, anywhere from gingivitis all the way to the more serious advanced periodontitis. Most adults do not brush and floss their teeth twice per day as is recommended, which can lead to gingivitis over a period of time. This is especially true if they do not make regular visits to their dentist for checkups and cleaning. Your dentist is responsible for screening and telling you if you have any sort of gum disease so that they can advise you as to how to properly handle it. Your dentist should also give you pointers on the different toothbrushes, toothpaste, and even mouthwash that can help reverse gum disease.
Gingivitis can be treated at home by simply brushing, flossing, and rinsing more and then continuing to do so to prevent recurrence. If you are having some cold sensitivity due to gingivitis then try to avoid cold food and beverages until your gums are no longer irritated and inflamed, indicating that the gingivitis is under control and the roots of the teeth are being properly protected once more. If total avoidance is not possible then you can try using a toothpaste made for sensitive teeth.
If your gum disease has progressed to a more serious stage then the guns may actually begin to pull away from the root of the teeth. This results in pockets and a large area of exposure at the root. Any tooth that has had this kind of major gum recession is very susceptible to cold sensitivity because there is nothing protecting the root. There is little that can be done at home to reduce cold sensitivity in this case other than avoiding cold food and beverages as much as possible. Your dentist will likely need to perform a procedure to fix the gum damage.
Occasionally sensitivity to cold may be caused by a damaged tooth in the form of a crack or cavity. Both of these situations can expose the dentin and make it subject to pain from temperature change. Usually, if this is the case the pain tends to be long-lasting and throbbing as opposed to sudden and sharp, but the extreme temperature may make it spike. If you have a cavity or crack in your tooth the only thing to do is to have your dentist repair it. While you are waiting to see your dentist you may be able to find some relief from sensitivity by applying dental wax to the area. This can cover up the exposed damage and protect it from extreme temperatures.
As well as tooth decay, there are many reasons that your teeth may become sensitive to cold. The best way to diagnose the issue is to see your dentist and try to avoid triggering food and beverages.