You’ve shoveled all sorts of stuff into your mouth over the years, but why—of all consistencies and chemicals—do ice cold drinks hurt your teeth the most? We spoke to Dr. Matt Messina of the American Dental Association to find out.
Why Teeth Are Sensitive to Cold
First things first: Messina emphasizes that some sensitivity is normal—it means you’re, you know, not dead. “Without pain, we wouldn’t know to take our hand off of a fiery burner on the stove,” he says.
With that in mind, here’s why teeth are particularly sensitive to cold: “A tooth is a solid, encased block. In the middle of that block is a nerve, and in that nerve are living tissues,” Messina explains. “Now think about when you apply heat or cold to hard surfaces—with heat, things expand, and with cold, things shrink.” This applies to teeth, too: When you sip a cold drink, the hard outer layer squeezes the sensitive inner nerve, and that causes pain.
Worse yet, as you chip away at the outer layers of your teeth over time—say, you grind your teeth—the sensitive innards (aka, dentin) become exposed. Unfortunately, this allows cold (or hot) temperatures to directly affect the nerves within the teeth, which doesn’t bode well for a pain-free mouth.
Why Some Are Affected by Cold More Than Others
“Some people simply have a more sensitive nervous system, and some people are born with less enamel,” Messina says. Having less enamel leaves sensitive nerves more exposed to extreme temperatures. “That said, when a certain area within the mouth is more painful than others—or if a certain tooth has become painful out of the blue—that’s when you can point to gum recession, or an exposed root.” Roots are packed with nerve endings, so they’re especially sensitive to temperature.
How to Reduce Sensitivity
If you notice any sort of change in sensitivity, Messina recommends taking a trip to the dentist, since new pains can indicate a growing cavity or the presence of gum disease. If you’re experiencing manageable, day-to-day sensitivity, Messina suggests picking up a toothpaste with additives that rebuild the protective layers of the teeth.
Or, you know, you could only drink room temperature drinks. Whatever works, right?