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Why Do My Teeth Hurt When Eating Ice Cream?

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A senior african american couple enjoy an evening on the town with ice cream

Forty-eight pints – that’s how much ice cream the average American consumes year. And most of us have experienced the occasional “ice cream headache” (aka brain freeze) when we slurp down that ice cream too quickly. That happens because your body is trying to defend itself against the extreme, unexpected cold by warming up quickly by expanding your veins to rush extra blood into the area.  

But it’s not self-defense when your teeth and gums hurt while eating cold foods or drinks. It’s typically a signal that you need to see a dentist ASAP.  

Why Are My Teeth Sensitive to Cold? 

Cold food or liquid coming into contact with exposed nerves that are protected when teeth are healthy causes the painful feeling you experience. Cold sensitivity usually means you have a dental health issue, such as tooth decay, damaged dental enamel, or gum disease. Here’s how it works: 

Worn Down Dental Enamel  

Dental enamel is the outer covering of the tooth and the strongest substance in your body. Enamel is a barrier that protects your teeth from the ravages of acids and plaque.  

Exposed Teeth 

Dentin is a layer of living cells that lies underneath the enamel. Dentin protects the pulp of your teeth, and has a direct hotline to the nerves of teeth. When the loss of enamel exposes dentin, you experience that sharp, shooting pain associated with cavities or cold-sensitive teeth. Research has only recently revealed that dentin contains cells that are responsible for, among other things, sensing and responding to cold.  

Gum Erosion 

Teeth can also become very sensitive to cold from gum erosion due to aging or after specific cancer treatments. Your dentist can recommend products and/or treatments that can reduce cold sensitivity. And while good oral hygiene – regular at-home care and visits to the dentist – can help prevent or repair the problems that cause pain when you eat foods like ice cream, sometimes teeth and gums need more help. 

Is Ice Cream Bad for My Teeth? 

The good news is that ice cream has plenty of calcium, which is essential for healthy teeth and bones. The bad news is that it’s usually high in sugar too, and sugar is super-bad for your teeth. A half cup of vanilla ice cream contains 12-19 grams of sugar. That’s about 56% of the recommended maximum amount of sugar adults should consume in a day. 

Sugar is your teeth’s worst nightmare, as it feeds oral bacteria that release acids that weaken tooth enamel. This dental erosion process creates cavities, which often get deeper and more prominent over time as the decay works its way down to the soft pulp inside the tooth. Simply stated: sugar eats your teeth.  

That doesn’t mean you can never have ice cream again. Look for low-sugar ice cream – or frozen treats like sorbets – or make your own at home to control the sugar levels. Limit the amount you consume, and brush your teeth right afterward. If you can’t brush, rinse your mouth with water to help remove the sugar from your teeth.  

Also, ice cream with gooey add-ins, like caramel or chocolate fudge – can be a real problem, as these types of foods tend to stick to your teeth, exposing them to even more sugar. So be really careful about brushing well after eating this type of ice cream.  

Can I Chew Ice Without Wrecking My Smile? 

During the sweltering heat of summer, chomping on a cube of ice can seem like a really excellent idea. Don’t do it. Chewing ice can cause cracked and chipped teeth, damage to tooth enamel, problems with existing dental work such as fillings and crowns, and sore jaw muscles.  

But what about eating crushed ice (Shave Ice in Hawaii, Italian Ice in New York City, Water Ice in Philly, Raspa in Texas, Granita to the Sicilians among us, Slushies, Snow Cones, and Snowballs to everyone else). Surely that’s ok? Well, sort of. Finely crushed ice is less damaging than crunchy cubes, but that sugary syrup can accelerate tooth decay. Indulge infrequently, and find healthier choices for heat-beating snacks.  

Avoiding Ice Cream Doesn’t Solve the Problem. 

You don’t need to say no to the occasional frosty treat to avoid dental pain. Instead, commit to getting your teeth healthy again so you can enjoy those cold treats safely. If you’ve been putting off seeing a dentist due to cost, consider joining a dental savings plan. Plan members can save 10-60% on most dental procedures – from root canals and crowns, fixes for chipped teeth and cavities, and even orthodontia – at more than 140,000 dentists across the nation. Reach out to us at 1-833-735-0399 if you have any questions about dental savings plans. 


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