Experiencing sharp pains in your mouth while consuming hot or cold foods shouldn’t be taken lightly. This discomfort could be an important warning sign from your teeth that decay may be lurking.

“Decay on any part of the tooth can cause sensitivity to cold and hot liquids and foods,” said Dr. Linda Niessen, clinical professor in restorative sciences at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry. “How you respond to hot stimuli vs. cold can indicate the severity of the decay.”

Cold sensitivity usually means the tooth has decay, Dr. Niessen explains.When the decay is removed, the cold sensitivity will go away.

Heat sensitivity usually means the decay is more extensive and affected the nerve of the tooth. The tooth now may need a root canal or another form of endodontic therapy.

“Decay on a tooth only gets worse when left untreated,” Dr. Niessen said.”Seeing a dentist at the first sign of sensitivity can help prevent dental problems from becoming more complicated – and costly – for the patient.”