Have you ever taken a swig of orange juice, and been met with a burning sensation? If that pain came along with a small white sore, you were probably dealing with a canker sore. Keep reading to learn more about these pesky mouth ulcers, what causes them, and how to treat canker sores.
What is a Canker Sore?
Canker sores, also called aphthous ulcers, are painful sores that occur inside the mouth. They are quite common – an estimated 1 out of every 10 people are affected, and there’s no known definitive cause.
Canker sore symptoms
Signs of canker sores include:
- White or yellowish sores on the inside of the mouth, most often the lips and cheeks, but sometimes the tongue or roof of the mouth
- Inflamed red skin around the sores
- Burning or tingling sensation in the mouth
- Pain while eating or drinking
What causes canker sores?
While there’s not one definitive cause of canker sores, there are several factors that can trigger canker sores.
- Genetics – some people are more prone to developing canker sores than others
- Hormonal changes
- Trauma to the mouth (biting your lip, abrasion from braces or dentures, etc.)
- Aggressive brushing
- Irritating toothpaste and/or mouthwash
- Acidic foods and spicy foods
- Nutritional deficiencies such as B12, zinc, folic acid, or iron
- Weakened immune system from health conditions such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, Behcet's disease, and HIV/AIDS
Canker sores vs cold sores
Canker sores are often confused for cold sores, but they are completely different. The difference between canker sores and cold sores impacts how the condition is treated, so it’s important to determine which you are dealing with before trying to treat them.
The most foolproof way to decipher a canker sore from a cold sore is the location of the sore. Canker sores occur inside the mouth, whereas cold sores are located on or around the lips.
Are canker sores contagious?
Unlike cold sores, canker sores are not contagious as they are not caused by an infection. So there’s no need to worry about sharing food or a kiss while you are dealing with a canker sore.
Canker sores vs cancer
If you’re a hypochondriac you probably tend to assume the worst when it comes to any sores or lesions on your body, but canker sores are hardly a reason to fret. Canker sores are very rarely a sign of cancer, and should only be a cause for concern if the sore does not go away after several weeks.
If you are still concerned about cancer, pain is the main factor that can help determine whether you are dealing with a canker sore or oral cancer. Canker sores are typically very painful, while mouth lesions from cancer are often painless.
Other signs of oral cancer include the following:
- Bleeding sores and/or white or red patches in the mouth
- Thickened tissue or lumps
- Numbness in the mouth
- Stiffness, pain, or swelling in the jaw
- Long lasting sore throat or hoarseness
- Lump in your throat feeling
- Loose teeth
If you are experiencing any or multiple of these symptoms, see your doctor for an oral screening.
How to get rid of canker sores
Canker sores usually heal up on their own within 1-2 weeks, but there are a few prescription and over-the-counter medications that can help alleviate symptoms faster. These include:
- Steroid dexamethasone
- Benzocaine (a topical like Orabase or Anbesol)
- Hydrogen peroxide rinse (Orajel)
- Corticosteroid ointments, such as fluocinonide, beclomethasone or hydrocortisone hemisuccinate.
Some more severe canker sores may last up to six weeks or repeatedly appear multiple times a year. If you suffer from long lasting or recurrent canker sores, then it’s best to seek medical advice from your doctor or dentist.
Canker sore home remedies
For your more mild, run-of-the-mill canker sore, there are some simple remedies for canker sores that you can do at home:
- Dab a small amount of hydrogen peroxide onto the lesion with a cotton swab.
- Use a baking soda mouth rinse - dissolve 1 tsp of salt or baking soda with 1/2 cup of warm water and rinse often.
- Let ice chips dissolve slowly over sores.
- Taking 500 mg of the amino acid L-lysine (can be purchased at most drug stores over-the-counter) will help prevent ulcer breakouts. During breakouts, 1000 mg will enhance rapid healing within 1-2 days.
How to prevent canker sores
Ideally, we would never have canker sores to begin with, and luckily, there are several habits you can adapt to help prevent canker sores from forming.
Proper oral care is essential for various aspects of your health, including canker sore prevention. Your toothpaste could be part of the problem considering most toothpastes on the market contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) which is a harsh detergent that’s been shown to cause irritation in the mouth. Instead, brush your teeth with a SLS free toothpaste, and opt for a soft bristle toothbrush to prevent excessive abrasion.
Dental fixtures like braces and dentures may help give you the beautiful smile you desire, but they can easily bring canker sores along for the ride. If your braces are poking your mouth, use dental wax to cover any sharp edges, and if your dentures are loose, see your dentist for an adjustment.
Cleaning up your lifestyle habits can help prevent canker sores as well. Make sure you are getting enough of all your essential daily nutrients by eating a well-balanced diet and taking vitamins and supplements to fill in any gaps. Quit biting on your cheek or tongue when you're overwhelmed by practicing stress management techniques like meditation or deep breathing.