Canker sores | What are they and what can I do about them?

Treat canker sores at home

Does pain from canker sores in your mouth keep you from smiling? Even if you have worked hard to maintain a healthy and beautiful smile through regular dental care and professional teeth whitening, the discomfort can take away your desire to show off your pearly whites.

Many children and adults struggle with canker sores. While it may be impossible to know why they occur, there are several known risk factors. There are also many home remedies that can effectively relieve pain and help them heal faster.

What is a canker sore?

Also known as aphthous ulcers or recurrent aphthous stomatitis, They are small, shallow mouth ulcers that can be quite painful. They can occur on all parts of the mouth, including inside the lips, on the gums or lining of your cheeks, or on the tongue or roof of your mouth.

While these lesions can be annoying and painful, they are not the same thing as a fever blister (cold sore). A fever blister is caused by the herpes virus, and it is highly contagious. A mouth ulcer, however, is not contagious.

There are three categories of canker sores:

  1. Minor sores, which typically measure from three to ten millimeters. These lesions usually last less than two weeks and heal without scarring.
  2. Major sores are deeper and larger. They tend to have an irregular border and measure larger than 10 millimeters. These ulcers can take weeks or months to heal, and they often leave a scar after healing.
  3. Herpetiform sores are the rarest type of ulcers, and they typically involve multiple sores in large groups. While they are small and usually heal without scarring, a patient can have up to 100 present at the same time.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of canker sores include:

  • A tingling, prickling, or burning sensation that can occur up to 24 hours before the lesion appears
  • Crater-like sores that are gray, white or yellow, often with a red border
  • Tenderness and pain at the site of the ulcer
  • Difficulty with eating, speaking, or swallowing, depending on the location

Less common symptoms can also occur, especially if there is an underlying condition. These symptoms can include fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and weight loss.

Why do I get them?

As the most common type of oral lesion, canker sores affect around 20 percent of people and typically occur three to four times a year. They tend to run in families and occur more often in women.

The cause is not well understood, but many factors can contribute.

Injury or trauma, such as from ill-fitting dental appliances, metal braces, or dental work, can lead to the development of canker sores. You can also damage your delicate mouth tissue with harsh brushing or by accidentally biting the lining of your cheeks or inside of your lip. Other common injuries include blows to the mouth, such as a sports injury or car accident.

Food allergies or sensitivities to certain ingredients in toothpaste or mouthwashes can break down soft tissues and lead to ulcer development.

Nutritional deficiencies can lead to the development of these sores, especially in patients who have diets low in zinc, iron, or B vitamins.

A weakened immune system puts you at risk for mouth ulcers. This includes patients with a history of an organ transplant, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, or individuals who have had their spleen removed. Also, patients who are currently ill with a bacterial or viral infection, such as a cold or flu, are more susceptible.

Patients receiving treatment for cancer are at high risk for mouth ulcers. This is because these treatments target and kill rapidly growing cells, including the cells in your mouth.

Other common contributing factors for recurrent canker sores can include:

  • Hormone fluctuations
  • Emotional stress
  • Eating acidic or spicy foods
  • Tobacco products or oral nicotine use
  • Intestinal diseases, such as Celiac or Crohn’s disease
  • Autoimmune disorders, such as Behcet’s or Lupus
  • Oral cancer

In addition, many medications can put you at an increased risk. The most common culprits include aspirin, NSAIDs, blood pressure, and heart medications. In addition, taking immunosuppressants, antivirals, and antibiotics increases your risk.

Get Relief with Home Remedies

In most cases, these sores will resolve on their own in a week or two, and you generally won’t need to schedule a dental checkup or doctor’s visit. In the meantime, you can help speed the healing and find relief with one or more home remedies.

Common effective home remedies include:

  • Swishing with warm salt water or a mixture of water and baking soda (dissolve one teaspoon of baking soda or half a teaspoon in half a cup of water)
  • Help the pain by taking an over-the-counter pain medication, such as Tylenol
  • Topical medications you can get over the counter
  • Zinc lozenges (you can find these at the store next to cough drops)
  • Taking vitamin supplements, such as C, B Complex, and Lysine
  • Chamomile, sage, and echinacea as a tea or infused with water to use as a mouth rinse (up to four to six times a day)
  • A mouth rinse with equal parts of hydrogen peroxide and water
  • Ice chips placed on the lesion and allowed to dissolve to help numb the pain
  • Swish and spit with benadryl liquid
  • Dab Milk of Magnesia on the ulcer a few times a day to help it dry out and heal
  • Over-the-counter mouth sore patches to cover and protect it

Other tips to help decrease the discomfort include avoiding spicy or acidic foods, brush gently with a soft-bristle toothbrush, and avoid toothpaste with sodium lauryl sulfate.

When to see a doctor for a canker sore

There are times, such as when you have several at once or they are particularly painful, that you should consider seeing your dentist. You may need a prescription for anesthetics or antibiotics to help with healing and discomfort.

Other reasons to consider seeing your dentist include:

  • The sores are spreading or getting bigger
  • You have recurrent ulcers
  • You have a fever
  • They last longer than three weeks
  • The pain interferes with your ability to drink enough fluids causing dehydration

Also, if you get these sores frequently, your dentist may be able to help figure out what is causing them.

For instance, if you have recurrent sores from an ill-fitting dental appliance, such as a dental bridge, denture, or crown, he can restore or replace it. He can also look over your current medication list to see if you take something that puts you at risk. In addition, he can order diagnostics or blood tests if he suspects an underlying issue.

Do you need help from a dentist for your canker sores?

If you are in the Chicago area and are ready to get professional help for your frequent, painful, or persistent mouth sores, Lake Forest Dental Arts is here for you. Our friendly team, led by Dr. James Fondriest, will work with you to find a solution.

If you have other reasons keeping you from showing off your smile, we can help with that too!

We offer a variety of cosmetic dental procedures, including veneers, dental implants, cosmetic bonding, teeth whitening, and dental crowns.