How Seniors Can Tell the Difference Between a Cavity and Sensitivity

May 22, 2018

Senior couple brushing teeth

If you’re experiencing acute tooth pain, it probably doesn’t matter to you what its cause is, you just want it to be over.

However, if you can tell the difference between a serious dental issue — like a cavity, for instance — and other types of tooth pain, you’ll be in a great position to control the amount of money you spend on dental care, especially if you’re not currently insured. If you’re over the age of 65, living on a fixed budget, this knowledge can be particularly valuable.

Tooth sensitivity can cause significant pain, but it’s less serious and more easily treated at home than the pain caused by dental caries (cavities), which requires professional attention.

So, how can you tell the difference?

What does a sensitive tooth feel like?

Generally, sensitive teeth flare up with sharp pain immediately on contact with certain triggers. The most common triggers are heat and cold. For instance, if your teeth hurt upon contact with a bite of ice cream or a sip of coffee, you probably have sensitive teeth.

The pain itself is usually fairly sharp and usually only lasts as long as the teeth are in contact with whatever caused the sensation. The sensitivity usually affects several teeth, not just one.

What does a cavity feel like?

A cavity can cause similar pain to sensitive teeth when triggered by heat or cold. However, cavities are often triggered by sweet foods and drinks as well. Additionally, beyond the sharp pain that comes with direct exposure to a trigger, all but the tiniest of cavities will cause dull pain when biting down on the affected tooth.

And, unlike the pain that comes from sensitive teeth, cavity pain generally gets worse over time as the cavity grows in size and depth. Typically, you will only develop one cavity at a time, so the worsening pain should be isolated.

What causes tooth sensitivity and cavities?

Interestingly, both of these painful issues are caused by the same initial problem: the enamel that makes up the hard outer layer of your teeth is being worn away, exposing the softer dentin layer beneath. Since the dentin layer contains tiny tubules that lead directly to the tooth’s central nerve, exposing the dentin allows food and liquid direct access to the nerve itself, causing pain.

Enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, but it’s not indestructible. In fact, a number of common circumstances can damage enamel, including:

  • Poor oral hygiene leading to excessive plaque
  • Bruxism (grinding your teeth)
  • Consuming sugary and heavily acidic foods and drinks
  • Excessive (or too forceful) brushing
  • Excessive use of alcohol-based mouthwashes

"Since the dentin layer contains tiny tubules that lead directly to the tooth’s central nerve, exposing the dentin allows food and liquid direct access to the nerve itself, causing pain."

In all these cases, the strong but thin layer of enamel can be slowly worn away over time, usually across a number of teeth. As more dentin is exposed, the teeth become more sensitive to temperature. And, they also become more susceptible to tooth decay.

The first item in the above list — excessive plaque — is the only item on the list that directly leads to tooth decay, or cavity formation. But, anything that weakens or destroys enamel makes it far easier for the bacteria in plaque to damage a tooth, creating a cavity. While sensitive teeth may remain painful but healthy for years, once a cavity begins to form, it tends to progress quickly and should be addressed by a dental professional.

How can you treat sensitive teeth at home?

The simplest way to avoid the pain of sensitive teeth is to identify your personal triggers and avoid them. For example, let your coffee cool for several minutes before drinking and don’t let the ice cubes touch your front teeth when drinking from a glass.

Beyond that, there are numerous toothpaste brands that are designed specifically for sensitive teeth. They are generally less abrasive than other brands, and many include ingredients that can potentially strengthen or rebuild the enamel on your teeth through a process called remineralization.

It’s also important to maintain excellent oral health and avoid the causes of worn enamel listed above.

When do you need to see the dentist?

For severe cases that have not responded to other treatments, there are professional procedures that can help reduce or eliminate tooth sensitivity, including the installation of crowns and veneers.

In the case of tooth decay and cavities, however, the only safe response is professional treatment by a qualified dentist. He or she will be able to assess the extent of the damage by means of a visual examination and X-rays, then drill out as little of the damaged tooth as possible to completely remove the decay, and either fill, cap, or replace the tooth so you have no more pain or complications.

In most cases, even a severe cavity can be successfully treated in an hour or less at your local dentist’s office.

So, you should now be able to tell the difference between tooth sensitivity and a more serious cavity. Are you thinking about your own chronic tooth pain? Whichever the cause turns out to be, don’t hesitate to make the necessary changes to treat and resolve it. Even if you are a senior on a tight budget, with the help of an inexpensive dental discount program, you can start feeling relief soon.

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