How to Tell If It’s a Cavity or Sensitive Teeth


A toothache is one of the more uncomfortable pieces of bad luck we routinely experience, and the bad news is, tooth pain can have a number of different causes. As such, it can be difficult to determine what’s behind your tooth pain and what steps you need to take to deal with it. We’re here to address a common conundrum: is my tooth pain a cavity or just sensitive teeth? In order to answer, we’ll need to take a look at what causes both of those things before we move on to what you should do about them.


Let’s start with cavities, as we’ve all been warned about them since childhood. A cavity is what the name implies—a small fissure or hole in the protective enamel of the tooth that allows for infection to set in. This can be caused by a bacterial infection, particularly if the tooth isn’t receiving adequate brushing and flossing, physical damage to the tooth from a chip or other trauma, or a missing filling. Symptoms of a cavity may include the following:

  • Toothache, or sudden pain in the tooth with no obvious cause
  • Tooth sensitivity to temperature or pressure
  • Mild to sharp pain when eating or drinking something sweet, hot or cold
  • Visible holes or pits in your teeth
  • Brown, black or white discoloration on the tooth

If you notice any of these symptoms appearing regularly, it’s likely time to see your dentist and have the issue addressed professionally.

Sensitive Teeth

Sensitive teeth—alternately referred to as tooth sensitivity—is a distinct but related phenomenon. As with cavities, sensitive teeth are what the name implies—teeth that have grown overly sensitive to outside stimuli. Sensitivity to heat or cold, particularly hot or cold drinks, is a classic presentation. However, sensitive teeth may also respond to sweet foods, the pressure of chewing or talking, or even a deep breath. As you may have noticed, looking at the similar list of symptoms, cavities are often a cause of sensitive teeth. However, they’re not the only thing that can lead to sensitivity, which can also stem from the following:

  • Enamel erosion is a prime culprit for sensitive teeth. As the outer hard layer of enamel wears away, the tooth loses much of its protection from heat, cold, and abrasion. This in turn exposes the inner nerves of the tooth to outside stimuli and can result in greater sensitivity or even pain.
  • Receding gums can cause sensitivity in much the same way enamel erosion does. Receding gums expose the more sensitive dentin of the tooth’s roots, which in turn expose the nerves to heat, cold, pressure, and other things that can manifest as sensitivity.

So how can you tell for sure if your tooth pain is caused by a cavity or just sensitive teeth?

Well, the truth is, it can be difficult. While cavities have their own set of symptoms, it’s not always obvious what the root cause of sensitive teeth is. The best course of action is to do your best to keep your teeth healthy via regular brushing and flossing routine, and then to consult your dentist if you notice tooth sensitivity or pain. They’ll be able to tell you for sure what’s going on and guide you through the next steps in treating it.