If the mere thought of a winter wonderland immediately makes your teeth tingle, you might be one of the many people with a sensitivity to cold air. And guess what? It’s true, colder temperatures can make already sensitive teeth feel even more sensitive.
“We do have more patients report tooth sensitivity in colder months, especially in younger 18 to 44-year-olds that show gingival recession (a breakdown of gums),” says Ammar H. Abidi, DDS, PhD, associate professor in the college of dentistry and department of bioscience research at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
A few other things could make the cold unbearable to your pearly whites, says Dr. Abidi, including if you use whitening products or have a decrease in tooth enamel (aka hypomineralization). If any of this sounds like you, read on to find out why your teeth are sensitive to cold air, and what you can do to protect your chompers when the temperature takes a nose dive.
Why does the cold bother your teeth, anyway?
Your teeth might not look like a hub of feelings, but within each tooth are nerves responsible for different sensations. In people with certain dental issues, these sensations can turn painful when exposed to temperature differences, including frigid or boiling temps. You also may notice pain or discomfort when you go from the cold outdoors to a warmer indoor temperature.
“Typically, when the inflammation or recession of the gums or pores in the tooth enamel is present, a stimulus like cold will cause sudden short, sharp pain due to the firing of sensory receptors in the pulp/dentin borders,” Dr. Abidi explains.
Cold temperatures tend to be the major offender, which is why you may notice cold temperatures—or mouth breathing in colder temperatures—trigger that sharp pain in your teeth.
On the other hand, some unlucky people are just prone to tooth sensitivity without an underlying dental problem. In fact, researchers have identified specific receptors channels in the teeth and nerves that may transmit pain. These receptors are located in both a-delta (fast communicating) fibers that can cause sharp, fast pain as well as c-fibers that cause the slow, duller onset of pain.
The thing is, cold sensitivity is such a common complaint that dentists even have a scale known as the Schiff Cold Air Sensitivity Scale. This scale helps dentists ask their patients to rate the severity of their discomfort when their teeth are exposed to cold blasts of air. That means your dentist may even try to re-create your sensitivity in the office with a brief cold air blast (*cringe). From there, they can help you figure out the next steps.
8 dentist-approved tips to protect teeth sensitive to cold air
While there aren’t tests that definitively diagnose tooth sensitivity, seeing a dentist can help rule out other more concerning underlying causes. These could include a cavity, cracked tooth, dental trauma, gingivitis, or periodontal disease.
If you don’t have anything wrong with your tooth (and hopefully you don’t), dentists recommend trying several things to reduce tooth sensitivity, in general. Some of these involve simply changing your habits, including:
- Use a soft-bristled toothbrush instead of a hard-bristled one
- Brush your teeth with a non-abrasive toothpaste, and avoid toothpaste marketed to remove stains that may contain ingredients such as aluminum oxide or calcium pyrophosphate
- Purchase toothpaste made for those with sensitive teeth
- Don’t brush your teeth too hard—you can clean your teeth well without harshly scrubbing them
- Hold your toothbrush in a vertical (up-and-down) orientation and brush each tooth individually, as this can help reduce injury to your teeth and gums
- Wear a mouthguard at night if you grind your teeth
- Avoid foods that cause increased sensitivity for you, like vinegar-containing foods, fruit juices, and soft drinks
- If you’re especially sensitive to the wind hitting your face, consider wearing a scarf or mask over your mouth to reduce cold sensations
If none of these work, it’s time to set up an appointment with your dentist
Lifestyle changes may not be enough for the severely tooth-sensitive, but don’t fret, there are other options. For persistent sensitivity, your dentist may recommend using gels, varnishes, or other applied solutions known as “desensitizing agents” that help further reduce sensitivity.
These approaches may help to reduce nerve transmissions that tell your brain cold sensations are painful. If these methods still don’t work, and the sensitivity appears aimed at a particular tooth, your dentist may recommend other procedures to restore or protect your tooth.
If you notice increased tooth sensitivity and haven’t seen your dentist in a while, it may be time to make an appointment. “It is best that a trained professional makes the diagnosis of the sensitivity and then provides guidelines on how to take care of the issue,” says Dr. Abidi.