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3 Ways to Get Rid of Canker Sores/Ulcers (Or at Least Make Them Less Dreadful)

Updated on October 27, 2013
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Canker sores. Also known as aphthous ulcers, also known as "the worst thing you can possibly imagine, and it's in your mouth." First, let's get something out of the way: canker sores are not the same thing as cold sores/herpes. Second, they are not caused by a virus (at least not one that we have identified), and are not communicable. They probably run in your family, and they may have started when you were too young to realize that your mouth shouldn't feel like its own circle of hell.

If you're not sure whether you have cankers, the easiest way to describe them is as an inflamed absence of membrane/skin , usually in a puffy little circle in your mouth or on your lips. I used to get them frequently on the insides of my lips and cheeks, and those little monsters burn . Eating food, brushing your teeth, drinking hot beverages, they're all awful. Heaven forbid you feel like smooching, because physical pressure is excruciating. Anyway, that's all in the past now, and... it's amazing. If these are bedeviling you, don't give in without a proper fight.

Ask your dentist if you're not sure whether you have cankers, as the following tips don't do squat for cold sores.

First: Change Your Toothpaste

I know you're attached to your whitening germ-murdering micro-encapsulated toothpaste. I understand, I do, and you're going to hate this part. The stuff I'm about to recommend doesn't foam properly, doesn't do much in the way of whitening, and it's not pretty. Know why I got over it pretty quickly? This made the biggest change in the frequency, severity, and duration of my canker sores. Making the switch to detergent-free toothpaste did the heavy lifting, the next two tips are just gravy.

Detergent-free? Yeah, there's a reason why your toothpaste makes you foam at the mouth, and it's not just so that you can pretend to be Cujo. There's detergent in there, the most common being sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). For whatever reason, many studies (including this one from 2012) find a correlation between SLS-laden toothpaste and aphthous stomatitis. It makes logical sense, as the mucous membranes in the mouth probably don't appreciate having their delicate top layer stripped away 2-3 times a day (a process called desquamation). Oh, and don't fall for the "SLS-free" toothpastes that have just substituted another detergent. You'll recognize them by the similar cadence of the chemical names in the ingredient list: ammonium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sarcosinate. The "laur-" in the middle usually gives it away. There's a detergent called cocoamidopropyl betaine which seems to be much less problematic (much less desquamation, fewer ulcers), but maybe we could just chuck the stuff altogether. I have two favorites:

  • Sensodyne ProNamel: This is one that you can find everywhere, so that's why I mention it first. It contains the "blahblahblah betaine" detergent discussed above, so it isn't ideal. It has an ingredient that masks tooth sensitivity, so that might not be the best thing to use forever. Still, it's SLS-free, and it works. When I stopped being able to find the Rembrandt toothpaste that I talk about below (I'm back on the wagon), this kept me going without a recurrence of my canker problem.

  • Rembrandt Whitening for Canker Sore Sufferers: Yes, this exists. Someone, somewhere, acknowledges that this is a legitimate problem. I used to be able to find it at my local pharmacy, but now I get it online. This is the stuff that made my life about 50% less terrible (I would occasionally get dime-sized ulcers). It didn't cure me, but the duration and severity went way down, and I was able to eat food again. Be warned: this stuff is completely detergent-free, so it will kind of seem like you're brushing with nothing at all. My dentist can attest to the fact that it still works just fine, despite your newfound inability to reenact one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history.

Second: Soothe the Pain, Don't Punish It

This is what finally knocked my canker sore problem from "constant sorrow" to "occasional concern." Do you ever find yourself using a numbing agent on your cankers? Does it feel like you've briefly dipped your head into the molten core of the Earth? Oh, and then your whole mouth goes numb, and it only helps a little and that spaghetti sauce still stings like the devil, and... Anyway, there's a better way. What if, instead of applying liquid fire to your sensitive mouth sore, you put something soothing and delightful there instead? Enter Cankermelts.

These are... a life saver. They're made of licorice extract and collagen. The licorice is intensely anti-inflammatory (and pain-relieving), and the collagen helps form the connective tissue scaffolding that is necessary for any wound healing. You apply the disc to a dry canker (this part hurts a bit, of course) and let it do its thing for the next 3-5 hours, or you can suck on them (this doesn't hurt a bit) in the case of a mouth-wide problem. Even if you don't change toothpaste, you should get these things. I found that they reduced the pain substantially, and kept any little cankers from reaching nightmare-size. If you get an ulcer after any mouth abrasion or trauma (biting the inside of your lip, for instance), slap one of these on after the bleeding has stopped, then continue to do so for the next couple of days. If you're anything like me, no canker sore.

Supplementation can also help, as canker sore sufferers have been shown to be low in zinc and B12. For the B12, the same company that makes Cankermelts makes Avamin Melts, which you use near places where you get frequent cankers. It seemed to work pretty well for me, but then I switched to another brand of B12 lozenges which were more economical. May be placebo effect. I don't care, it's worth a try.

Third: Lifestyle Changes (Oh no!)

This was the part that finally knocked out my spontaneous canker problem. No more do I wake up with a little spot on my mouth lining that, I just know it, will turn into a painful monster that lasts two weeks. Nope, now I'll just get a little annoying wound when I bite my lip or cheek that's gone in two days (heck, for all I know, that's what's normal).

I had to stop constantly flooding my oral environment with sugars and starches. When I do eat something sugary, I'll make sure to have some water, and try to pop a xylitol mint shortly thereafter. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that greatly confuses oral bacteria; they gorge themselves on the stuff, then die of hunger. Good. The mints also stimulate salivation, and they make your breath smell good. Win freakin' win.

This leads me to my last change. This isn't something that I expect of everyone reading this. You might not be in the market for a new lifestyle or diet (though I do recommend reducing your sugar as a means of reducing canker sore recurrence). To the point: I honestly feel that changing over to a lifestyle that is closer to the "primal" way of life has helped me finish off a few lingering health problems that had survived my weight loss. If you're unfamiliar with primal living (and, rest assured, I'll be writing about this more in the future... that's what zealots do), it means reducing the chronic burden you're putting on your body through insulin spikes and unhealthy foods and activities. If this sounds interesting, I recommend checking out Mark Sisson's books (see below). I'm not going to push this in this post, as it's somewhat tangential, but consider it if you're having trouble with anything in your digestive tract (oral mucosa included).

Okay, I'm done. New toothpaste, fun little licorice wafers, less sugar. Maybe a huge lifestyle overhaul. Easy peasy.

Thanks for reading, and, as always, be kind to yourself.

Tell me all your torrid, aphthous secrets!

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