What are canker sores?

10 Aug 2017
Dental care - Oral Health - Preventative Care
canker sores

Canker sores are small, painful ulcers inside the mouth. They may occur on the tongue and on the inside linings of the cheeks, lips, and throat. They usually appear white, gray, or yellow in color, with a red border. Canker sores are among the most common types of oral lesions, affecting about 20% of people. Women are more prone to canker sores than men. Canker sore susceptibility may be inherited, and the condition can run in families. We look a little deeper into what a canker sore is and why they happen.

There are two types of canker sores:

  • Simple canker sores:These may appear three or four times a year and last up to a week. They typically occur in people ages 10-20.
  • Complex canker sores: These are less common and occur more often in people who have previously had them.

What Causes Canker Sores?

The exact cause of most canker sores is unknown. Stress or tissue injury is thought to be the cause of simple canker sores. Certain foods — including citrus or acidic fruits and vegetables (such as lemons, oranges, pineapples, apples, figs, tomatoes, and strawberries) — can trigger a canker sore or make the problem worse. Sometimes a sharp tooth surface or dental appliance, such as braces or ill-fitting dentures, might also cause canker sores. Some cases of complex canker sores are caused by an underlying health condition, such as an impaired immune system; nutritional problems, such as vitamin B-12, zinc, folic acid, or iron deficiency; or gastrointestinal tract disease, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.

Are Cold Sores and Canker Sores the Same Thing?

No. Though cold sores and canker sores are commonly confused, they are not the same. Cold sores, also called fever blisters or herpes simplex type 1, are groups of painful, fluid-filled blisters. Unlike canker sores, cold sores are caused by a virus and are extremely contagious. Also, cold sores typically appear outside the mouth — usually under the nose, around the lips, or under the chin — while canker sores occur inside the mouth. (Spoiler alert: keep an eye out for our blog on Tuesday, when we’ll dive deeper into cold sores.)

What Are the Symptoms of Canker Sores?

The main symptom of a canker sore is a shallow ulcer on your tongue or on the inside of your lip or cheek. The sore may be small or large, and it will have a red border and a white or yellow center. You might have more than one canker sore at a time. Canker sores usually present with a burning or tingling feeling. They may be swollen and painful. Having a canker sore can make it hard to talk or eat. Canker sores may be painful for 7-10 days. Minor canker sores heal completely in one to three weeks, but major canker sores can take up to six weeks to heal. Some people get another canker sore after the first sore has healed. Most canker sores heal without a scar. 

How is it treated?

Most canker sores don’t require medical attention. They will heal and resolve on their own. In the meantime, there are many things you can try at home to relieve the pain caused by your canker sores:

  • Eat soft, bland foods that are easy to swallow, such as yogurt or creamsoup. Cut your food into small pieces or mash or puree it. Avoid coffee, chocolate, spicy or salty foods, citrus fruits or juices, nuts, seeds, and tomatoes.
  • Drink cold fluids, such as water or iced tea, or eat Popsicles. Sometimes fluid touching the canker sore can cause a stinging pain. Use a straw so the fluid doesn’t touch the canker sore. Hold ice on the canker sore until it is numb.
  • Carefully brush your teethso you don’t touch the sore with the toothbrush
  • Rinse your mouth with salt water.
  • Buy an over-the-counter medicine, such as Milk of Magnesia, or Orabase, to put on your canker sores three to four times a day Consult a doctor before giving numbing medicines to a child under age two. A pain reliever such as aspirin would work to take away some of the pain as well.

If your canker sores do not improve after two weeks of home treatment, you may need to see your doctor or dentist. Talk to your doctor if you have a fever, have trouble swallowing, or if your canker sores keep coming back. You may have another problem that is causing your symptoms.

Can Canker Sores Be Prevented?

Although there is no cure for canker sores, and they often recur, you may be able to reduce their frequency by:

  • Avoiding foods that irritate your mouth, including citrus fruits, acidic vegetables, and spicy foods.
  • Avoiding irritation from gum chewing.
  • Brushing with a soft-bristled brush after meals and flossing daily, which will keep your mouth free of foods that might trigger a sore.

Do you have questions about canker sores? Call Hartnett Dental to schedule an appointment with your dentist today! (716) 649-6633