Acid erosion, brushing too hard, dry mouth and tooth grinding can all wear away at the enamel of your teeth and cause pain. (BigStockPhoto)

If savoring a spoonful of ice cream or sipping hot tea triggers brief, sharp pain, you could be suffering from tooth sensitivity. This common condition, which affects up to 35 percent of adults, occurs when gums have receded or tooth enamel is worn down, leaving the softer underlying layer of your teeth — the dentin — exposed. Dentin connects with tooth nerves, and when it is unprotected, the nerves can become irritated in response to cold, hot, sweet or sour food and drinks, to pressure or to cold air. Sensitivity can also signal a cavity, broken filling or cracked tooth, and you should consult a dentist about throbbing or prolonged pain. Otherwise, you can usually control sensitivity by addressing its causes and following the tips below.

Acid erosion

When tooth enamel is exposed to acid — from beverages, food, medication or stomach acid — it temporarily loses minerals, causing it to soften. If the enamel is repeatedly exposed, it can gradually wear away. Acid is found in many frequently consumed items, including most fruit and fruit juices, sports drinks, diet and regular sodas, wine and vinegar. To protect your teeth:

●Limit acidic foods, such as berries, citrus fruits and ketchup, and acidic drinks to main meals to prevent continual exposure. Swallow acidic drinks quickly, or use a straw aimed at the back of your mouth.

●Neutralize acids by following them with milk, cheese or water. Consume acidic beverages with nonacidic food — for instance, orange juice with toast and eggs — or try a less erosive, calcium-enriched juice.

●Avoid acidic drinks at bedtime and while exercising, when you produce less saliva.

●If you chew aspirin or Vitamin C pills, rinse your mouth with water afterward, or ask your doctor for a form that won’t come in contact with your teeth.

Overzealous oral hygiene

If the bristles on your toothbrush are spread out, you’re probably brushing too hard, a habit that can cause gums to recede and enamel to wear down. And brushing right after an acidic meal or drink can accelerate damage, because the softened enamel is more vulnerable. Abrasive toothpaste, acidic mouthwash and tooth whiteners can also contribute to sensitivity.

●Use a soft-bristle toothbrush and a gentle touch, holding it with your fingertips rather than in the palm of your hand.

●Switch to a less abrasive paste made for sensitive teeth, which typically contains potassium nitrate to block pain. Use it regularly for at least two weeks with a minimal amount of water to avoid diluting the active ingredients. You can also use a finger to apply a thin layer of the paste to sensitive spots after brushing.

●Avoid bleaching your teeth, which temporarily causes and exacerbates sensitivity.

Dry mouth

Saliva is the best defense against acid erosion because it clears, dilutes and neutralizes acids, restores minerals and forms a protective film over enamel. But dry mouth is a common problem and a side effect of more than 400 drugs, including some blood-pressure medicines and diuretics as well as antidepressants, antihistamines, decongestants and painkillers.

●Increase the flow of saliva by using sugar-free lozenges, but avoid those containing citric or malic acid, or labeled “sour” or “tart.” Chewing sugarless gum can be abrasive to softened enamel.

●Avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages, which dry the mouth.

●Also avoid acidic food if you don’t produce much saliva and have severe erosion. Saliva substitutes for dry mouth are available over-the-counter at drugstores, but they don’t offer the same level of protection as natural saliva.

Teeth grinding

This habit, which can occur due to stress, an abnormal bite, sleep disorders or temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), can wear away enamel.

●Try relaxation techniques and avoid triggers such as caffeine, which can heighten muscle tension, and alcohol, which has been linked to an increased risk of teeth grinding.

●Ask your dentist about getting a mouth guard to protect your teeth while you sleep.

If you don’t notice an improvement after a few weeks of trying these tips, ask your dentist about applying a fluoride varnish, which forms a barrier over teeth, or other treatments.

Copyright 2011. Consumers Union of United States Inc.