The Painful Truth about Canker Sores
What are they?
Canker sores, also called mouth ulcers and mouth sores by most people, and aphthous ulcers or recurrent aphthous stomatitus by doctors and scientists, are little painful crater-like sores that develop in the mouths of susceptible people. They usually occur on the inside of the cheeks, but can also develop anywhere else in the mouth on the spongy soft tissue. No one knows exactly what causes them, but there are a number of suspects.
Some people get them all the time and others only rarely. It is estimated that 20% of the population gets canker sores. As far as we know, they are not contagious.
What causes canker sores?
This is a bit of a puzzle. There are a lot of theories, but the truth is, no one knows. But there are several suspects that seem to promote their occurrence. Further complicating matters is the oddity that different things seem to cause canker sores in different people.
Some people believe that a microorganism is responsible for the development of canker sores, but none has been found.
Contributing factors to canker sore formation
- Toothpaste - not the toothpaste itself, but rather an ingredient in most toothpastes, called sodium lauryl sulphate.
- Stress - people tend to develop the mouth ulcers when they lack sleep and women sometimes get them around menstruation.
- Acidic foods - citrus fruits and cooked tomatoes in particular.
- Bacteria - no particular strain has been identified as the cause.
- Food allergy - there are several common food allergens, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.
- Mouth injury - from sharp foods like chips and pretzels, sharp edges on braces, or simply from biting your cheek or lip.
How to Get Rid of Canker Sores - Two approaches to dealing with canker sores
- Treat the symptoms to lessen pain and help an existing sore go away.
- Treat the causes by changing your lifestyle so they don't come back.
The second approach complements the first one because once you stop doing some of the things that cause your sores in the first place, the sores will heal faster. This makes sense, doesn't it? If you have a sore thumb from banging it with a hammer, it will take less time to heal if you stop banging it with a hammer first, right?
Treating the symptoms - If you have a canker sore right now, there are a several things you can do to alleviate the pain and to help heal it.
- Numb it -There are numerous over-the-counter and prescription preparations available, such as Anbesol , Oragel, and CankerAid, that are designed to numb the canker sore so that you don't feel it. Unfortunately these products tend to numb the surrounding area as well and don't do anything to help these mouth ulcers heal.
- Burn it - Fighting fire with fire. Putting salt on a sore will hurt, but it does seem to help heal them. Some people use alcohol-based mouthwashes or peroxide with varying degrees of success.
- Cover it - Still other preparations are designed to cover the sore (which isn't easy because of the moist, slippery nature of the mouth) to prevent further injury and to allow it to heal by itself.
One product, CankerMelts, designed specifically for canker sores, covers them with a candy-like disc that is infused with licorice root and sticks to the sores. It protects the mouth sores from injury, dulls the pain and helps heal them.
Licorice root is a plant that has been shown to help heal canker sores. This is not the same as the licorice found in candy, which is flavored with anise, not licorice root (at least in the US).
Treating the cause
- Toss your toothpaste - this will probably help more than anything else on this list. The typical toothpaste you find in your local supermarket has sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), which has been implicated in canker sore formation. SLS is a chemical found in toothpastes and shampoos that is valued for its ability to create a lather. Unfortunately, it also removes a protective film (called mucin) in the mouth over time. Thankfully, there are several natural toothpastes without SLS that are now available.
- Chill out - get more sleep, go for a walk, meditate, stop eating junk, etc. Lessen the stresses in your life and your canker sores will lessen their appearance.
- Drop acid - oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, cooked tomatoes, etc. are all acidic. The more you eat these, the more likely you'll get canker sores. This doesn't mean you can't ever eat them, just don't eat them all the time.
- Don't eat - referring to the list of food allergens above, avoid these foods for a while and see if the sores disappear. Then keep a detailed diary of what you eat and re-introduce them one at a time to see which one might be contributing to your canker sores.
- Kill the bad guys - Bad bacteria, that is. Not much you can do here besides keeping your mouth clean by brushing often and not kissing the dog. One interesting canker sore treatment involves eating yogurt with live (good) bacteria. Some people swish the yogurt around in their mouths before swallowing to influence the balance of bacteria in the mouth. Eating yogurt also helps the digestive tract in the same way. Reducing the "bad" bacteria in your intestines has the added advantage of lessening the stress on your body.
- Stop hurting yourself - don't eat sharp-edged foods like potato chips or pretzels and use wax to cover sharp edges on braces.