Canker Sore and Cold Sore: Causes & Home Remedies

Many people assume a canker sore and a cold sore are the same thing. However, there are some major differences between these types of mouth sores. If you do suffer with blisters, bumps or discolored areas in your mouth, it's important to know what is a cold sore and canker sore and what causes them.

What are Mouth Sores and Mouth Ulcers?

Mouth sores can be any abnormal area that may appear on your tongue, gums, palate (roof of the mouth), lips or inside of your cheeks. These small or large areas may be red bumps, white patches, ulcers or small painful blisters. They can make eating, drinking or even speaking difficult. Some can be contagious or even harmful, while others can be temporary and harmless.

There are many types of mouth sores. Some can be caused by trauma, such as biting your cheek or tongue. Others may be the result of infection, burns or irritation. Systemic disease that may affect other parts of your body, may also affect your mouth. These include Behcet's syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus, sexually transmitted diseases or Addison's disease. Oral cancer can be another type of mouth sore. 

Mouth ulcers typically appear in the mouth, and are known by their medical term as aphthous ulcers (recurrent aphthous stomatitis) or canker sores. According to National Institute of Health, their name "aphtha" in Greek means ulceration. These are very common, do recur under certain conditions and can be painful. The round ulcers can appear one by one or in multiple areas in your mouth.

Difference Between Canker Sores and Cold Sores

difference between canker sores and cold sores infographic

What is a Cold Sore and What Causes Cold Sores (Fever Blisters)?

Cold sores or fever blisters, are caused by the herpes virus. The tiny blisters can affect and appear on your lips or any area in your mouth or your lips. If it's in your mouth, it will develop on tissue that's over bone. In other words, not on tongue or cheeks which are considered as "soft tissue", but the palate or over the gums. Once infected, it never leaves and can cause outbreaks again and again. Approximately half the population in the U.S. become infected by the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) by the time they're in their 20s. By the age of 10 years old, many people have become infected.

The virus hides inside nerve cells and is inactive. It may not cause an outbreak until certain conditions warrant the cold sore to appear. If you have an outbreak, you most likely got it from someone who was infected, since this disease is contagious. The virus is transmitted by contact from the body fluid (such as saliva) of an infected person's skin. You can get it from a kiss or using the eating utensils or cup of an infected person.

The following are possible trigger for what causes cold sore outbreaks:

  • Stress can weaken and compromise your immune system and cause a cold sore outbreak. This can be good or bad stress, mental or physical stress, including getting dental treatment or illness.
  • Sun exposure and wind over prolonged periods can cause a cold sore.
  • Fatigue and not getting enough sleep may set off an outbreak.
  • During menstruation or other hormonal changes you may experience breakouts. 

Treatment for Cold Sores

There is no cure for cold sores once you're infected, it will recur frequently or infrequently, depending on your general health and habits. There are some prescription drugs that may speed up the healing and help with discomfort. These can include the following, with some taken orally as pills, while others consist of a topical cream:

  • Penciclovir (Denavir)
  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • Famciclovir (Famvir)
  • Acyclovir (Xerese, Zovirax)
  • Abreva is an example of a non-prescription, over-the-counter topical remedy to help with pain and speed the healing process.

Home Remedies for Cold Sores

There is no cure for cold sores on a permanent bases, however, there are ways to naturally hasten healing. Below are some suggestions:

  • Lysine - This amino acid taken at 1000 mg per day has been shown to quicken the healing process during breakouts.
  • Propolis - A synthetic beeswax in 3 percent ointment, applied during outbreaks may shorten the breakout.
  • Stress is a major trigger for all ill health. Learn to manage it well.
  • Certain foods tend to quicken breakouts, including peanuts and most nuts. 

How to Prevent Cold Sores

To help minimize breakouts of cold sores, some factors are helpful:

  • Take a prescribed antiviral medication every day.
  • Lysine taken at 500 mg daily helps prevent outbreaks.
  • Avoid sharing utensils, towels, lip balm and toothbrushes.
  • Keep your hands clean and don't touch others during an outbreak.

What is a Canker Sore?

Canker sores (aphthous ulcers) develop over the soft tissues inside your mouth. While cold sores can also form over your lips or outside your mouth, canker sores only occur inside the mouth. They are not contagious, can be painful and appear in multiple areas in the mouth or just one.

Research has not proven an exact cause, but certain trigger for canker sores are known to cause outbreaks: 

  • Some form of trauma may cause the outbreak. This can include aggressive brushing, cheek or tongue biting, sports accidents, or injury to the mouth from dental treatment.
  • A detergent often used in toothpaste or mouthwash called sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Always choose an SLS free toothpaste or mouthwash.
  • Nutritional deficiency of vitamin B-12 or iron.
  • Stress
  • Hormonal changes, such as during your period
  • According to Mayo Clinic, certain health conditions can increase the risk of canker sores, such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, Behcet's disease, weak immune system, HIV/AIDS

    Treatment for Canker Sores

    There is no cure for canker sores. To reduce pain due to multiple outbreak of canker sores or for pain relief, you may be prescribed:

    • Steroid dexamethasone - to reduce pain and inflammation
    • Lidocaine - to reduce pain
    • Benzocaine - topical (Orabase, Anbesol)
    • Fluocinonide
    • Hydogen peroxide rinse (Orajel)

    Home Remedies for Canker Sores

    There is no quick fix for canker sores. Below are some suggestions to manage pain and discomfort:

    • Dab a small amount of hydrogen peroxide to the lesion with a cottom applicator.
    • Baking soda mouth rinse - dissolve 1 tsp of salt or baking soda with 1/2 cup of warm water and rinse often to sooth irritation.
    • Allowing ice chip to dissolve slowly over sores to help with discomfort.

    How to Prevent Canker Sores

    To help minimize breakouts of cold sores, some factors are helpful:

    • Avoid spicy foods or food that may be abrasive such as potato chips, pretzels and hard french bread.
    • Be careful while brushing your teeth.
    • Only use a gentle sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) free toothpaste.
    • Loose dentures can irritate the tissues in your mouth and result in an outbreak. Check with your dentist for new dentures or to reline an old one.
    • Stress can cause breakouts. Practice stress reducing techniques.
    • Eat healthy foods rich in vegetables and nutritionally balanced meals.
    • If you have braces, ask for wax to cover sharp edges.

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