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The Painful Truth about Canker Sores

Updated on December 12, 2007

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

  1. Treat the symptoms to lessen pain and help an existing sore go away.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Stop hurting yourself - don't eat sharp-edged foods like potato chips or pretzels and use wax to cover sharp edges on braces.

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    • profile image

      marieclaudecheney 4 years ago

      I don't know about you guys but does anyone have the problem of 2 or 3 little canker sores growing and becoming one giant one?? Happens to me every time. Found out that honey is a natural antibiotic so tea with a lot of honey will usually stop them growing for me!

    • profile image

      gogogopher 4 years ago

      I get canker sores quite regularly, except mine are typically very large, very painful, and don't go away for a few weeks. After years of putting up with this, plus my seemingly unrelated digestive issues and chronic fatigue, my doctor diagnosed me with Behchet's Disease. It is rarely diagnosed, so you may have it and not know it. If you are on this site looking for answers to severe mouth ulcers, ask your doctor about Behect's.

    • profile image

      Lukify 4 years ago

      @imahomeopath: actually, we write about many different things

    • profile image

      yolanda-munoz-71 4 years ago

      @stacy-v-martin: This happens to me all the time. I have 3 canker sores right now, 1 of them is from accidentally biting the corner of my mouth and the other 2 slowly creeped up, Ive had them for almost a week now. Unfortunately I fear that it will take a while to cure them as 2 of them rub against my teeth and I work in a call center, therefore my mouth is always moving. Im going to buy new toothpaste tomorrow. Im tired of getting cancker sores,

    • profile image

      stacy-v-martin 4 years ago

      I have had canker sores from the items mentioned, but also from just biting my lip and not even realizing it until it appears later with much pain. Anybody else get them this way? I have just been more conscience about this lately to prevent any more in the future.

    • profile image

      imahomeopath 5 years ago

      I just discovered this site. Nice writing, and good information. Do you write on other health topics?

    • Quake LM profile image
      Author

      Quake LM 5 years ago

      @LoveyDoveygirl: I really doubt that losing weight has anything to do with getting canker sores, unless you changed your diet and started eating foods that you don't normally eat, such as large amounts of citrus (as with the grapefruit diet). It could also be an allergy to another food - see article above about food allergies and canker sores.

    • profile image

      LoveyDoveygirl 5 years ago

      I was losing weight recently. Mostly 2kg per week and soon, I had 2 canker sores. Is that the cause of it?

    • Quake LM profile image
      Author

      Quake LM 5 years ago

      @casswalk: My research tells me that those foods can trigger canker sores, but it's hard to know until you test for yourself, either by process of elimination or by allergy testing. I was affected by citrus until I stopped using toothpastes with SLS. Now I can have oranges, grapefruit, etc., without problems. So it's entirely possible that your 4 year old has the same issue; that certain foods cause the sores only as long as he or she also uses SLS. If I were you, I would switch toothpastes first and see if that makes a difference. If that doesn't work, then do the allergy testing. Keep in mind, that it may take weeks or even months of not using SLS before the canker sores disappear completely, but you'll probably see them diminish considerably after a couple weeks.

      I hope that works for you. I know how uncomfortable canker sores are. It must be really bad for a 4 year old.

    • profile image

      hanifseo 5 years ago

      It's really valuable information regarding canker-sore treatment. I also found one of the site regarding canker-sore treatment which some authentice information available. You may visit at http://www.canker-soretreatment.com/

    • profile image

      casswalk 5 years ago

      My 4 year old gets canker sores all the time. I just read about changing toothpastes so i'll definietly try that tomorrow. I'm wondering, Is it possible for my child to be allergic to eggs, wheat or milk etc and only show signs of having an allergy by getting a canker sore? or is it just likely its the SLS in the toothpaste that's causing her sores?

    • profile image

      hanifseo 5 years ago

      It's really valuable information regarding canker-sore treatment. I also found one of the site regarding canker-sore treatment which some authentice information available. You may visit at http://www.canker-soretreatment.com/

    • profile image

      HeavyAnswers 5 years ago

      Numbing the area can be done using a styptic pencil as well. The same type you shave with. So until you learn how to get rid of canker sores in your mouth, you can at least avoid the pain:)

    • profile image

      howtogetridofacankersore 5 years ago

      I'm agree, nice lens too, lots of information. Just to add my share. Be careful of physical injury in the mouth. Braces and dentures may sometimes have sharp points that can wound the inside of the mouth. One way on how to get rid of a canker sore is to have your dentist apply denture wax over these bits so that wearing them is safer. Also, try to avoid chewing gum to lessen the chances of biting parts of your mouth such as your tongue and cheeks, especially during sports activities.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Great Lens and the information makes interesting reading about Canker Sore. When you have time check out my The truth blog

    • profile image

      CankerSoreTreatment 6 years ago

      While their definite cause remains unknown, medical experts have named certain trigger factors that usually set off the growth of canker sores. Physical trauma like toothbrush abrasions, brace adjustments, and tooth extractions are few of the most common canker sore culprits. Food allergies, citrus fruits, rapid weight loss, stress and nutritional deficiency have also been mentioned as crucial triggering factors. Insufficient amount of nutrients like vitamin B12, Zinc, folic acid, and iron have shown a consistent link in people who have complained about having canker sores.

    • profile image

      ElizabethCull26 6 years ago

      Sometimes the cause of canker sore is the wire from braces. When I had my first braces, it was really hard to eat and there were times that I had a canker sore. When I visited my present dentist, Highland Park-based (Highland Park dental group is popular for a good cosmetic dentistry), I found out that citrus fruits are good for our oral health. It is because that vitamins are good protector of our bodies against bad ailments.

    • profile image

      roelkersss 6 years ago

      Canker sore treatment range from oral medications to topical creams or dental pastes. Tetracycline, Viscous Licodaine and Silver Nitrate are some of the chemical preparations prescribed as canker sore remedies. Nutritional supplements like vitamin B12, folic acid, and zinc have also been considered effective in speeding up the healing phase. Aside from these prescriptions, home remedies are also presented to conventional aphthous ulcer patients. Salt solution as well as the well-known diphenhydramine and Maalox mixture has both showed commendable results in reducing the symptoms of canker sores. Naturopathic treatments using herbal concoctions from Rhadiola Rosea or the Spilanthes acmella flower are also prescribed by some providers. However, no intensive medical studies have been done to scrutinize contra indication properties and possible adverse side effects of these natural compounds.

    • profile image

      meg728 9 years ago

      Ouch, that is so painful just by looking at it. Vit C may not be the instant cure but could form part as prevention. For home remedies, pare a skin of unripe chico fruit, squeeze out its juice straight on to the sore. Works wonders.

    • profile image

      WhippetTalk 9 years ago

      I used to get canker sores as a teenager, but not anymore. Great lens. Very informative. 5*s

    • profile image

      bob_g 9 years ago

      I didn't realise about the problems with using toothpaste. Thanks for the lense will be of great benefit to my father. Much appreciated.

    • profile image

      DinahSchierer 9 years ago

      I hate canker sores, thanks for all the great information!

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      Very nice informative lens. I once had them but i dropped a little acid in it and it went away. Never knew what caused it... Thanks for the info...

    • profile image

      unholy1 9 years ago

      Great information on this fine lens. Canker sores are definitely something I would not want to get but if I do then I'm glad I have this resource to look at and find a treatment.

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      I didn't realize there were so many things that could cause mouth sores.

    • Luvi LM profile image

      Luvi LM 9 years ago

      Well the thought of having canker sores is disgusting, and having the information about it and how it is caused is good.

      This way I'd know the ways to prevent them and if ever I do get them would be able get a suitable remedy real quick.

    • profile image

      karinmindell 9 years ago

      Great info! Nicely written, and easy to understand. I will recommend this to my daughter.

      Thanks