Mouth ulcers — also known as canker sores — are normally small, painful lesions that develop in your mouth or at the base of your gums. They can make eating, drinking, and talking uncomfortable.
Women, adolescents, and people with a family history of mouth ulcers are at higher risk for developing mouth ulcers.
Mouth ulcers aren’t contagious and usually go away within one to two weeks. However, if you get a canker sore that is large or extremely painful, or if it lasts for a long time without healing, you should seek the advice of a doctor.
What triggers mouth ulcers?
There is no definite cause behind mouth ulcers. However, certain factors and triggers have been identified. These include:
- minor mouth injury from dental work, hard brushing, sports injury, or accidental bite
- toothpastes and mouth rinses that contain sodium lauryl sulfate
- food sensitivities to acidic foods like strawberries, citrus, and pineapples, and other trigger foods like chocolate and coffee
- lack of essential vitamins, especially B-12, zinc, folate, and iron
- allergic response to mouth bacteria
- dental braces
- hormonal changes during menstruation
- emotional stress or lack of sleep
- bacterial, viral, or fungal infections
Mouth ulcers also can be a sign of conditions that are more serious and require medical treatment, such as:
- celiac disease (a condition in which the body is unable to tolerate gluten)
- inflammatory bowel disease
- diabetes mellitus
- Behcet’s disease (a condition that causes inflammation throughout the body)
- a malfunctioning immune system that causes your body to attack the healthy mouth cells instead of viruses and bacteria
There are three main types of mouth ulcers. These include:
Herpetiform ulceration (HU)
Herpetiform ulcers are a subtype of aphthous ulcers and get their name because they resemble the sores associated with herpes. Unlike herpes, HU is not contagious. HU ulcers recur very quickly, and it may appear that the condition never gets better.
This type can range in size from about 2 millimeters (mm) up to 8 mm across. These ulcers typically take up to 2 weeks to get better and will cause minor pain.
Bigger than minor ulcers, major ulcers are often irregular in shape, may be raised, and penetrate deeper into the tissue than minor ulcers. They can take several weeks to go away and are likely to leave scar tissue when they clear.
What are some ways to treat mouth ulcers?
Most mouth ulcers don’t need treatment. However, if you get mouth ulcers often or they’re extremely painful, a number of treatments can decrease pain and healing time. These include:
- using a rinse of saltwater and baking soda
- placing milk of magnesia on the mouth ulcer
- covering mouth ulcers with baking soda paste
- using over-the-counter benzocaine (topical anesthetic) products like Orajel or Anbesol
- applying ice to canker sores
- using a mouth rinse that contains a steroid to reduce pain and swelling
- using topical pastes
- placing damp tea bags on your mouth ulcer
- taking nutritional supplements like folic acid, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, and zinc
- trying natural remedies such as chamomile tea, echinacea, myrrh, and licorice root