What are mouth ulcers?

Mouth ulcers are painful areas in the mouth and gums. They are also known as canker sores.

While mostly harmless, mouth ulcers can be extremely uncomfortable and make it difficult for some people to eat, drink, and brush their teeth.

Mouth ulcers range in size, and the exact symptoms of the mouth ulcer will depend on what type of ulcer a person has.

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
  • HIV/AIDs

What symptoms are associated with mouth ulcers?

There are three types of canker sores: minor, major, and herpetiform.

Minor

Minor canker sores are small oval or round ulcers that heal within one to two weeks with no scarring.

Major

Major canker sores are larger and deeper than minor ones. They have irregular edges and can take up to six weeks to heal. Major mouth ulcers can result in long-term scarring.

Herpetiform

Herpetiform canker sores are pinpoint size, occur in clusters of 10 to 100, and often affect adults. This type of mouth ulcer has irregular edges and will often heal without scarring within one to two weeks.

You should see a doctor if you develop any of the following:

  • unusually large mouth ulcers
  • new mouth ulcers before the old ones heal
  • sores that persist more than three weeks
  • sores that are painless
  • mouth ulcers that extend to the lips
  • pain that can’t be controlled with over-the-counter or natural medication
  • severe problems eating and drinking
  • high fever or diarrhea whenever the canker sores appear

How are mouth ulcers diagnosed?

Your doctor will be able to diagnose mouth ulcers through a visual exam. If you’re having frequent, severe mouth ulcers, you might be tested for other medical conditions.

How are mouth sores treated?

Minor mouth sores often go away naturally within 10 to 14 days, but they can last up to six weeks. Some simple home remedies might help reduce the pain and possibly speed up the healing process. You may want to:

  • avoid hot, spicy, salty, citrus-based, and high-sugar foods
  • avoid tobacco and alcohol
  • gargle with salt water
  • eat ice, ice pops, sherbet, or other cold foods
  • take a pain medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • avoid squeezing or picking at the sores or blisters
  • apply a thin paste of baking soda and water
  • gently dab on a solution that is 1 part hydrogen peroxide and 1 part water
  • ask your pharmacist about other over-the-counter medications, pastes, or mouthwash that may be helpful

If you see your healthcare provider for your mouth sores, they may prescribe a pain medication, anti-inflammatory drug, or steroid gel. If your mouth sores are a result of a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection, your healthcare provider might provide a medication to treat the infection.

In cases of mouth cancer, a biopsy will be taken first. Afterward, you may need surgery or chemotherapy.

Can mouth sores be prevented?

There is no absolute way to prevent all mouth sores. However, you can take certain steps to avoid getting them. You should try to:

  • avoid very hot foods and drinks
  • chew slowly
  • use a soft toothbrush and practice regular dental hygiene
  • see your dentist if any dental hardware or teeth may be irritating your mouth
  • decrease stress
  • eat a balanced diet
  • reduce or eliminate food irritants, such as hot, spicy foods
  • take vitamin supplements, especially B vitamins
  • drink plenty of water
  • don’t smoke or use tobacco
  • avoid or limit alcohol consumption
  • shade your lips when in the sun.

Are there any long-term effects of mouth sores?

In most cases, mouth sores have no long-term effects.

If you have herpes simplex, the sores may reappear. In some cases, severe cold sores can leave scarring. Outbreaks are more common if you:

  • are under stress
  • are ill or have a weakened immune system
  • have had too much sun exposure
  • have a break in the skin of your mouth

In cases of cancer, your long-term side effects and outlook depend on the type, severity, and treatment of your cancer.

Resources:

medicalnewstoday.com

healthline.com

nhs.uk

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