Skip Navigation

Teeth Insights relies on readers. We may earn commissions when you purchase through our links. Check Affiliate Disclosure

How to Determine If You Have a Cavity or Just Tooth Sensitivity?

Are you having tooth pain and wondering if it might be a cavity or just tooth sensitivity? It can be difficult to determine the exact cause of your discomfort, but there are some clues that you can look for in order to help differentiate between cavities and regular tooth sensitivity. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore what causes each issue and how you can effectively manage them to keep your teeth healthy. Keep reading to find out more about diagnosing these issues and how best to care for your smile!

Tooth sensitivity, clinically known as dentin hypersensitivity, arises when the tooth’s enamel wears down or when the gum line recedes. Consequently, this exposes the dentin beneath the enamel. The dentin contains tiny tubes that lead to the nerve, causing pain when triggered by cold, heat, sweet, or acidic foods.

On the other hand, a cavity, or dental caries, is a permanent damage that occurs in the form of tiny holes on the hard surface of the teeth. Cavities often develop due to bacteria in the mouth, frequent snacking, drinking sugary drinks, or neglecting dental hygiene.

Key Differences Between a Cavity and Tooth Sensitivity

1. Duration and Type of Pain

Tooth sensitivity usually results in short, sharp pains, especially in response to certain triggers. For instance, drinking a cold beverage or eating ice cream. However, once the stimulus is removed, the pain generally fades. In contrast, cavities might cause a more constant and aching pain, even without any evident triggers.

2. Visible Signs

While sensitive teeth might not exhibit any visible signs, cavities can sometimes be seen as holes or pits. In advanced stages, they might even cause discoloration (black, brown, or white stains) on the tooth surface.

3. Location of Discomfort

Tooth sensitivity can be felt in any tooth, particularly following dental procedures or due to gum recession. Cavities, conversely, will cause discomfort in the specific tooth they’re present in.

Steps to Determine if You Have a Cavity or Just Tooth Sensitivity

Dental concerns can often be perplexing, especially when it comes to distinguishing between a cavity and tooth sensitivity. While both can cause discomfort, understanding the underlying issue can help you seek the right treatment and care. Here are some steps to help you make that determination:

Evaluate the Type and Duration of Pain:

Tooth Sensitivity: Typically presents as short, sharp pains when exposed to triggers like cold, hot, sweet, or acidic foods and drinks. The pain usually subsides once the stimulus is removed.

Cavity: The pain might be more constant, throbbing, or aching. It doesn’t necessarily need a trigger and can intensify when pressure is applied while eating.

Visual Inspection:

Grab a mirror and examine your teeth. While tooth sensitivity doesn’t show any visible signs, cavities can sometimes appear as holes, pits, or even stains (black, brown, or white) on the tooth surface.

Check for Temperature Sensitivity:

If your teeth hurt only momentarily when exposed to extreme temperatures (like when sipping a cold drink) but the pain fades quickly, it’s likely sensitivity.

A lingering pain after the removal of the temperature stimulus might indicate a cavity.

Feel for Rough Edges:

Using a clean finger or your tongue, feel around the tooth. If there’s a cavity, you might be able to detect a gap, hole, or rough spot.

Assess the Location of Discomfort:

Sensitivity can be generalized, affecting multiple teeth, especially those recently exposed due to gum recession or dental procedures. A cavity-related pain will typically be localized to one area where the decay is occurring.

Consider Your Dental History:

If you’ve recently had a dental procedure, such as teeth whitening, it might lead to temporary sensitivity.

On the other hand, if you’ve been neglecting dental check-ups or have a history of cavities, there’s a higher chance that the pain is decay-related.

Professional Dental Examination:

The most definitive way to determine if you have a cavity or just tooth sensitivity is to consult with a dentist. They can perform a detailed examination, take X-rays if needed, and provide a conclusive diagnosis.

Prevention and Treatment if You Have a Cavity or Just Tooth Sensitivity

Both cavities and tooth sensitivity can cause discomfort, but with the right preventive measures and treatments, you can protect your teeth and maintain a healthy smile. Here’s a guide on how to handle these dental concerns:


1. Regular Oral Hygiene:

  • Brush twice daily using fluoride toothpaste. Ensure you’re using a soft-bristled toothbrush to prevent enamel wear and gum recession.
  • Floss daily to remove trapped food particles that can lead to cavities.
  • Use a mouthwash to reduce plaque and bacteria, strengthening enamel and reducing the chances of cavities.

2. Dietary Habits:

  • Limit sugary snacks and drinks, which can accelerate tooth decay.
  • Avoid acidic foods and beverages that can erode enamel and cause sensitivity.

3. Dental Visits:

  • Regular check-ups and cleanings help detect early signs of cavities and address potential causes of sensitivity.
  • Consider fluoride treatments, which can help strengthen enamel and reduce the risk of cavities and sensitivity.

4. Protect Your Teeth:

If you grind your teeth at night, consider using a mouthguard to protect your enamel from wear.


For Tooth Sensitivity:

  1. Desensitizing Toothpaste: This contains compounds that help block transmission of sensation from the tooth surface to the nerve.
  2. Fluoride Gel: Available at dental offices, this strengthens tooth enamel and reduces the transmission of sensations.
  3. Dental Sealants: A protective coating applied to the exposed root surfaces can reduce sensitivity.
  4. Root Canal: If sensitivity is severe and other treatments aren’t effective, a dentist might recommend a root canal to treat the problem.

For Cavities:

  1. Fillings: The most common treatment for cavities. After removing the decayed portion, the dentist fills the hole with a material like silver, composite resin, or porcelain.
  2. Crowns: For more severe decay, a tooth might need a crown (or cap) after removing the decayed material.
  3. Root Canals: If tooth decay reaches the inner pulp of the tooth, a root canal might be necessary to remove the damaged pulp and seal the tooth.
  4. Extraction: In extreme cases where the tooth decay is significant, the tooth might need to be removed. It can be replaced with an implant, bridge, or denture.


In the journey of deciphering whether you have a cavity or just tooth sensitivity, understanding the differences and undergoing some simple tests can provide clarity. Nonetheless, the surest way to know and receive adequate treatment is to consult with a dentist. Prioritize your oral health, and remember that early detection and intervention are the best defenses against both conditions.