Mouth ulcers—also known as canker sores—are common ailments that affect most people at some point in their lives. These sores are normally small, painful lesions that develop in the mouth or at the base of the gums. Unlike cold sores, mouth ulcers do not occur on the surface of the lips, and are not contagious. While mostly harmless, mouth ulcers can be extremely uncomfortable, and can make it difficult for people to eat, drink, and brush their teeth. The causes of mouth ulcers remain unclear, though researchers suspect there are certain factors that contribute to outbreaks.
Most mouth ulcers are round or oval with a white or yellow center, and a red border…but the symptoms of a mouth ulcer can vary. Minor ulcers are usually small and oval shaped and heal without scarring in one to two weeks. Major ulcers are much less common, and are larger and deeper compared to minor ulcers. These ulcers are usually round with defined borders, can be extremely painful, can take up to six weeks to heal, and can leave extensive scarring. The last type of ulcers are herpetiform, which are also uncommon. Herpetiform ulcers are pinpoint in size, often occur in clusters of 10 to 100 sores, and heal without scarring in one to two weeks.
There are no definitive causes of mouth ulcers, but there are certain factors and triggers that have been identified. These are:
- A minor injury to your mouth from an accidental cheek bite or overbrushing
- An allergic response or sensitivity to toothpaste or mouth rinse; this oftentimes occurs after switching from one product to another
- Food sensitivities, particularly to chocolate, coffee, strawberries, eggs, cheese, and spicy or acidic foods
- A diet lacking in vitamin B-12, zinc, folate or iron
- Emotional stress
There are also certain conditions or diseases which may cause mouth ulcers, such as:
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- HIV/AIDS, which suppresses the immune system
Treatment for minor mouth ulcers is usually not necessary, as they tend to clear on their own within a week or two. However, if you get mouth ulcers often—or if they are painful— consider these tips to help relieve pain and speed the healing process:
- Rinse your mouth with salt water or a baking soda rinse (dissolve 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 1/2 cup warm water)
- Put a small amount of milk of magnesia on the ulcer a few times a day
- Avoid acidic or spicy foods that can cause further irritation and pain
- Apply ice to the ulcer by allowing it to slowly dissolve over the sore
- Brush your teeth gently using a soft brush and a foaming-agent-free toothpaste
Though the occurrence of mouth ulcers may be inevitable, there are steps that can be taken to lessen the severity or reduce the number of times an outbreak happens. Avoiding foods that irritate your mouth is one step. This includes acidic fruits, nuts, chips or anything that is spicy. Instead, try eating whole grains and alkaline fruits and vegetables. Other steps include not talking while chewing your food, as this will help prevent accidental bites. Reducing stress and practicing preventive dentistry by using dental floss, brushing after meals, and seeing your dentist for regular dental cleaning can also lessen the occurrence of outbreaks.
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