Updated: Oct 15
Under normal circumstances, healthy teeth should not be sensitive to sweets but if they are then it is an indication that something needs to be addressed.
What it typically feels like may vary from person to person but what remains the same is that they're all triggered by a sweet treat.
Tingling sensation in your teeth
Aching pain around your teeth
Sharp stabbing pain for a moment
Pain that can be referred to the rest of your face
General discomfort in your mouth
Some common sweets or foods, which may trigger these symptoms:
Candy - any form of candy such as hard ones and even soft ones.
Juice - all juices that contain sugar or are acidic.
Carbonated drinks - even your favorite fizzy sodas can cause sensitivity since they're chock full of sugar.
Wine - an often glossed over cause but sometimes that sip of red wine will cause some teeth discomfort. Wine typically has a lot more sugar than beer.
Dessert - this is the most broad category but it includes cookies, cakes, and basically everything that contains sugar in it.
Despite sharing a commonality of your teeth being sensitive to sugar, what may cause it can differ greatly. Therefore treatment will also differ, which is why it is important to correctly identify what exactly is making your teeth so sensitive to sweets. Here are some common causes for this discomforting sensation:
One possible cause for your teeth to be sensitive to sweets is if you have decay in your teeth. This decay could be new or it could be recurrent decay, which means that a cavity is forming under an existing cavity filling.
The reason why the teeth feel sensitive is because a cavity is literally a hole in the form of a tunnel that connects your mouth with the inside of your tooth. If the cavity happens to reach one of the nerve endings of your tooth, the sweets can stimulate it and cause discomfort.
Under normal circumstances when you don't have a cavity, there is no tunnel that connects the mouth with the nerve endings of your tooth. This means that if you eat sweets, it won't be able to stimulate the nerves to cause you sensitivity.
What you should do: If you are suspecting that you have a cavity, you should schedule a consultation with your dentist. It is definitely a good idea to go in for a dental check up so that you can get x-rays as well. X-rays will help detect whether or not there is decay.
Here is an x-ray of what tooth decay looks like:
What a cavity looks like on an x-ray is a dark spot. All solid objects show up as white or radiopaque on the x-ray. However non-solid objects will show up as darkness or radiolucent.
The only way to treat a cavity that is sensitive to sweets is to have a dental filling. This is a procedure where your dentist excavates the decay and then fills your tooth back in with a tooth colored filling material.
Here is what you should expect during the treatment:
Apply numbing gel. This numbing gel is used to make the injection hurt less.
Administered local anesthetic injection. This is the actual tooth numbing agent and the anesthetic of choice is usually Lidocaine.
Remove decay by drilling. The decayed parts of your tooth must be drilled out and our dentist does this with his drill that spins very quickly and expunges water.
Fill it in. Once the cavity is cleaned out, your dentist will apply the conditioner, primer, and bonding. After that he'll fill it in with a composite filling.
Adjust the bite. Next your dentist needs to check your bite by adjusting it until it feels even. Make sure your bite feels normal before you leave the office because an uneven bite or high filling can be very painful to chew on!
Polish the filling. The last step is to polish the filling and tooth so that it feels smooth. Rough or sharp edges on a filling can cut and injure your tongue.
After you have the tooth decay treated with a dental filling, you have to remember that you can always get recurrent decay. The only way to prevent the decay from coming back is to stay on top of your oral hygiene and to minimize sugar intake.
Oral hygiene. You absolutely must brush for at least 2 minutes twice a day. It would be ideal if you could floss and use some mouthwash as well.
Minimize sugar. Try your best to avoid as much sugar in your diet as possible. If you can't then try to decrease the amount which you consume. The less of it you take in, the less likely it will be for you to get a cavity. The reason is because the bacteria which cause tooth decay require carbohydrates to create cavities.
We most often think of desserts which contain sugar but plenty of other foods and drinks have it as well. A glass of red wine for instance has a lot of sugar in it. It would be prudent to read the nutritional labels for everything that you eat.
Receding gums can cause your teeth to become sensitive to sweets because the gums normally protect the more sensitive tooth root. Under normal circumstances, the roots of your teeth are covered by the gums and that prevents them from external stimuli. However, if the gums recede, it will expose the roots and that can be sensitive.
The gums don't recede on their own but here are a couple of common causes:
Brushing too hard. If you are an aggressive brusher who likes to use a hard tooth brush, the gums may recede after being repeatedly traumatize by your brushing. The gums are very delicate and so is your mouth. You need to treat them gently and with care. If you injure the gums and they recede, they won't grow back. The recession will expose the root surfaces of your teeth and that'll be sensitive to all sorts of sweets.
Periodontal disease. If you have gum disease such as gingivitis, the gums may recede as a result of damage from the gum inflammation. Once you get it treated and the inflammation is decreased, you may notice that the gums have shrank from where they originally were. If this is the case then the sensitive roots will become exposed.
Teeth grinding. Teeth grinding in the middle of the night can cause your gums to either recede or chip away at your enamel near the gum line. Both of these two results can cause the nerves in your teeth to become more exposed.
For receded gums, you have two options to fix it:
Dental bonding. The exposed root surface of your teeth can be covered up with dental bonding. Your dentist will bond on a tooth filling to cover up the exposed root surfaces. Once it is covered up, when you eat sweets, it won't be able to penetrate through the filling to reach the tooth nerve. This will block off all sensitivity signals. This technique works very well but you may need the bonding replaced every couple of years once it gets worn down.
Gum grafting. Alternatively, you can see a gum specialist and have them try to do a gum graft. This procedure attempts to regrow the receded gums. There are multiple ways that your dentist can do this procedure but you will have to discuss with the periodontist (gum specialist).
Soft toothbrush. You should only use a soft brush and never ever use a hard toothbrush. In fact, Colgate even recommends that you use a soft brush. However it is interesting how they still sell hard brushes.
Gentle brushing motions. Do not be over zealous and brush like a mad man trying to saw through a tree trunk. You're suppose to use gentle circular motions. This is to ensure that you do not injure and cut up your delicate gums.
Low abrasion toothpaste. Your toothpaste comes in different abrasiveness and grits. If you're using a very gritty or abrasive paste, you may want to switch to a more gentle one so that it doesn't damage your gums. One of the least gritty toothpastes on the market is the Sensodyne Pronamel.
Routine dental check up. You should go in for your dental cleaning every 6 months. This ensures that gum disease like gingivitis and periodontitis never have a chance to progress too far and cause permanent damage like receding gums. Prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Thin enamel as a result of erosion may cause your teeth to be sensitive to sweets. If your enamel is being eroded, the layer of protection that it offers for the more sensitive dentin layer underneath will be reduced. This means that everything you eat can potentially trigger a discomfort signal from your tooth nerve since there is less of a buffer. The enamel acts as a buffer layer between the oral environment and the nerve endings of your teeth.
Once it erodes you will notice the tooth look more yellow because that is the color of the dentin layer underneath the enamel. It is a tell tale sign of eroded enamel.
Here are some common causes of enamel erosion:
Acidic foods. Foods that are highly acidic such as sour or spicy foods can cause your enamel to erode and thin out. The acids from the foods act in a similar way as tooth decay in that they eat through the enamel. Once your enamel thins out, sweets may cause sensitivity if you eat enough of it.
Bulimia. This eating disorder results in the individual vomiting very frequently. Your vomit contains a lot of stomach acids, which are some of the most potent acids on this planet. In fact, the stomach acids are more acidic than cavities! Having the vomit constantly bathe your enamel is a recipe for eroding them.
GERD. Have GERD is similar to bulimia except it is not an eating disorder. Nonetheless, the acid reflux that comes back up your throat will bathe your teeth in acid and erode the enamel. The effects are very similar to bulimia.
Medical help. For bulimia and GERD, you will need to seek help from a medical professional. Your dentist is not trained to treat these conditions.
Dental bonding. For the teeth, which have been eroded you can place bondings on them to replace the lost enamel layer. That should restore the buffer and prevent acids and sweets from causing your teeth discomfort.
Dental veneers. Veneers are an alternative to dental bonding. They also last longer since they are made of porcelain. Patients should consider this alternative if the enamel erosion is very bad.
Avoid acidic foods. If you like eating acidic foods, you need to stop or at the very least minimize their intake. The acid from all those foods are wearing through your enamel and that isn't what you want especially if you're having sensitivity to sweets.
Rinse your mouth. As good practice, what you should do is rinse your mouth out with water after consuming acidic foods. You should also rinse your mouth out after vomiting or experiencing GERD. This will dilute the acids in your mouth and on your enamel. It will minimize the damage from the acids.
Studies have shown that simply rinsing your mouth out will bring the pH level of your mouth back above neutral. You can use regular water, Listerine, ACT mouthwash, or even chlorhexidine.
Teeth whitening will make your teeth definitively sensitive to sweets. In fact, after whitening your teeth will be sensitive to hold, cold, acidic, and spicy. It is actually not just limited to sweet sensitivity.
Under normal circumstances, your the pores or tubules in your teeth are blocked off by smear plugs. These plugs prevent stimuli such as sweet and whitening gels from coming into contact with the pulp, which is full of nerve endings. The whitening gel will dissolve and dislodge the smear plugs, thus opening up a pathway to the pulp.
After the smear plugs are gone, your teeth will feel sensitive whenever you eat something sweet because the sugar is able to travel directly to the nerve and irritate it.
Here is a picture of what a tooth with and without smear plugs look like after whitening:
Treatment & Prevention
Since the sweet sensitivity from whitening is self induced, what you should do is immediately stop the teeth whitening treatment. The sensitivity from it should resolve after a week or so.
In the meantime here is what you can do to help alleviate some of the sensitivity:
Sensitivity toothpaste. You should use a sensitive toothpaste, which usually has a desensitizer in it. Potassium nitrate is a common ingredient which is used to depolarize the tooth nerve. It basically prevents the nerve from sending sensitivity signals to your brain. The only caveat is that you must use the toothpaste for at least 2 weeks for it to build up enough concentration in the pulp to deactivate the nerve.
Desensitizer. Some whitening treatments will come with a RX desensitizer. The KoR desensitizer is calcium oxalate and it instantaneously desensitizes the teeth by blocking the dentinal tubules by recreating the smear plug.
Avoid sweets. If eating sweets are making your teeth sensitive, you should minimize or avoid eating them until after your teeth return to normal. There is no reason to torture yourself by eating sweets if they cause you pain. You should also avoid other foods that may trigger discomfort as well.
An infected nerve that is unhealthy will be sensitive whenever you are eating sweets. In fact, it'll be sensitive if anything touches it such as chewing on it. The reason is because the nerve is irritated and inflamed so it will trigger pain signals as soon as anything stimulates it.
Unfortunately for an infected nerve, there is no at home treatment for it. Only your dentist can treat it because that tooth will require a root canal procedure. This treatment removes the infected nerve from your tooth so that you no longer feel pain.
The root canal procedure may take 1-2 visits but it could be more depending on how infected the nerve is. Once the pulp is removed and the canals are cleaned out, the canals will be filled in with a root filling material.
Afterwards you will return to your general dentist to have a dental crown placed on the tooth. The reason is because once you remove the nerve, the blood supply comes out with it. This makes the tooth get weaker and become more brittle over time because no more nutrients is going to it.
The tooth will also become discolored and turn grey over time. Therefore the crown is to restore structural integrity as well as aesthetics.
Healthy teeth won't be sensitive to sweets but unhealthy teeth with certain dental conditions can be. If you are experiencing a particular sensation whenever you eat sweets, it would be prudent to go in for your dental check up. You may be surprised to find out that you potentially have a cavity, gum recession, or enamel erosion.
Most of these conditions can be treated and once you do, your teeth will no longer be sensitive to sweets. You can go back to enjoying your desserts but try not to overdo it! However, it always helps to minimize the damage by rinsing your mouth afterwards and then brush and floss your teeth.
Author: Written by Dr David Chen, a dentist in long island city.