What Does it Mean if My Child's Teeth Are Sensitive to Hot and Cold?

If you’ve ever been afflicted with that instant needle-like shock of pain that comes from tooth sensitivity, you know exactly the curse it can be. As an adult, it’s something we strategically try to avoid, opting to chew on one side or our mouth, for example, or avoiding things we really enjoy such as ice cream or frozen drinks. Tooth sensitivity can be a real pain for adults, and for children without a knowledge of what might be causing their sensitivity, it can be an even more shocking and distressing event.

What Causes Tooth Sensitivity?

It’s important to properly define the nature of the discomfort your child is experiencing. Often a child will say their tooth “hurts” when really, the tooth is just sensitive. Deciding which it is will help you determine how soon to see your dentist. A tooth is “sensitive” when the discomfort is immediate, yet fleeting once its cause is removed. Think of how uncomfortable it would be, for example, to place an ice cube on a sensitive part of *your* tooth. Doing so would cause an immediate, yet passing sensitivity as soon as the ice cube was removed from the tooth. If, on the other hand, you were to *wake up* with a tooth that was bothering you – and that discomfort continued throughout the day – or, if each bite of every meal caused discomfort, you would likely refer to these instances as a “pain” or a “soreness.”  Placing your child in these scenarios will help you decide what they’re actually feeling, and what cause of action to take.

What Causes Sensitive Teeth in Children?

  • Cavities: Since children don’t typically experience sensitivity due to years of improper brushing, the most common reason your child will complain of sensitivity will be due to the presence of a cavity.
  • New teeth: Once your child’s teeth have erupted and begin to rise to their proper height, that newfound exposure to air and food can cause some sensitivity. In contrast, the actual eruption of the tooth is more likely to cause pain and soreness.
  • A crack or break in the tooth: If a child has a mis-aligned bite, or tends to grind their teeth at night, they can end up with hairline cracks that can cause pain or sensitivity when eating.
  • Fillings: Children with silver amalgam fillings might experience hot/cold sensitivity because of the metal’s high thermal conductivity.
  • Sinus problems: Sometimes children with allergies and sinus problems can experience tooth sensitivity, particularly in their upper molars. However, if discomfort in the tooth is present when tapped, the problem is more likely to be with the tooth itself, and not related to sinus issues.
  • Improper brushing: While it’s true your child is unlikely to experience sensitivity because of improper brushing, it is possible. Learning proper brushing technique early-on can help your child reduce the risk of this type of sensitivity.  Teach your child to use a soft circular motion as opposed to a rapid back and forth motion. This will help preserve the tooth’s enamel which, in turn, protects the nerve-rich dentin.  Exposed dentin is what causes this kind of sensitivity. If your child has braces, technique is even more important. The reason for this, is that a child with braces tends to inadvertently brush “lower” along the gum line then they are aware. If they are doing so at a rapid pace, and in a back and forth motion, they’re likely to affect the integrity of the gum line, and can set themselves up for later tooth sensitivity.

If your child is experiencing sensitivity in their teeth, mention it to your dentist at their next appointment. Of course, when more lingering sensitivity or outright pain is present, you may wish to schedule an appointment sooner – rather than later – to determine the root cause of your child’s complaints.

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