Yellow teeth? Sensitive gums? What common dental issues really mean.

If your teeth could talk…
You’ve just noticed a crooked tooth. Was that there before? And come to think of it, your gums are feeling a bit sore. Oh well, it’s probably nothing. At least, that’s what you tell yourself.

Unfortunately, these seemingly small problems could be your mouth’s silent cries for help. From yellow stains to sore gums, experts break down the most common dental complaints—and reveal what they mean.

Sharp tooth pain
If you experience a sudden pain in one or more of your teeth when biting down, you may have tooth decay or cavities, says Sally Cram, DDS, a Washington DC-based periodontist. “There’s a particular type of bacteria that takes sugar from your diet and coverts it into acid, which causes tooth decay, or holes in your teeth,” Dr. Cram explains. And when those holes get deep, that causes sensitivity and, eventually, cavities.

If the pain occurs only once in a while, and isn’t confined to single spot, it’s probably nothing to worry about, Dr. Cram says. But if it’s consistent—meaning it recurs for a week or more—you should pay your dentist a visit.

Achy tooth pain
A throbbing or achy pain may be nothing if it only last a day or two, says Sherri Worth, DDS, a reconstructive dentist in Newport Beach, California. But pain that lasts for more than a week may be a sign you’re grinding or clenching your teeth. If that’s the case, Dr. Worth says you might benefit from a night guard (or a less frustrating job!).

Persistent pain accompanied by swollen gums or glands could also be caused by an abscessed tooth—a.k.a. a tooth with a root infection, adds Dr. Worth. Only your dentist can tell for sure.

Yellow or stained teeth
You can breathe easy on this one: Stained or yellow teeth are almost never a sign of serious dental concerns, says Dr. Worth. “These stains develop from drinking coffee, tea, wine, or other dark or staining liquids.” Whitening toothpastes, strips, or a trip to your dentist can solve the problem. “It’s also a good idea to rinse or brush your teeth after consuming these liquids to prevent staining in the first place,” she adds. (Here’s what to look for in a whitening toothpaste.)

If the stains are brown or stripe-y, on the other hand, this could be the result of tetracycline antibiotics you were administered as a child, or from other medications, Dr. Cram adds. “It doesn’t mean the teeth are damaged, but your dentist can take cosmetic steps to remove those stains.”

Loose or suddenly crooked teeth
If your teeth feel loose, become crooked, or fall out altogether, you probably don’t need a dentist to tell you there’s a big problem. “This is typically the result of periodontal disease,” which causes bone loss around your teeth and jaw, Dr. Cram says.

If you’re not cleaning your teeth properly (that means brushing twice a day, flossing daily, and getting cleanings from your dentist twice a year), bacteria on your teeth will form a thin film called plaque, Dr. Cram says. Continue your poor dental habits, and that plaque will eventually harden into tartar, which can spread into your gums and, eventually, the bones around your mouth. See a dentist immediately regarding any loose or newly crooked teeth.

Bleeding, red, or swollen gums
This could be an irritating side effect of pregnancy or other hormonal changes, says Pia Lieb, MD, DDS, a New York-based cosmetic dentist. It could also be caused by bacterial buildup. If the symptoms pop up for a day or two, but diligent brushing and flossing seem to remedy things, it’s nothing to worry about, she says.

But if your gum problems persist for more than a week, it could be another sign of periodontal disease, Dr. Lieb says. Schedule a trip to the dentist asap.

Sores in your mouth
Though painful, sores or soreness are often the result of eating too much citrus, spicy fare, or scalding hot foods, Dr. Worth explains. If the pain disappears after two or three days, you’re probably fine.

But if the sores linger, that could be a sign of a serious vitamin A deficiency, Dr. Cram says. Vitamin A is important for collagen and connective tissues, which is basically what your tongue’s made of, she says. Start eating more sweet potatoes, spinach, and carrots—all good vitamin A sources—and see your dentist if things don’t improve.

Gum pain
If your gums or the sides of your teeth hurt when you breathe in cold air, or drink hot or cold liquids, it could be a cavity, Dr. Cram says. It could also mean your gums have drawn back, exposing the roots of your teeth, she adds. This can occur because of bacteria, clenching or grinding your teeth, or brushing too forcefully with a hard-bristled toothbrush.

If red or white spots appear with the pain, however, they could be relatively harmless irritations caused by certain foods, drugs, or even improperly fitted dentures or mouthguards, Dr. Cram says. In some cases, they could also be signs of oral cancer. If the spots linger for more than a week, have you dentist check them out, she advises.

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