You absentmindedly brush your tongue along a spot in your mouth and immediately feel a burning sensation. You know the feeling. With dread, you look in the mirror as you pull your bottom lip down and see a small, white spot. Sure enough, it’s another canker sore.
Also called aphthous ulcers, canker sores are small lesions that develop on the soft tissues inside your mouth. They’re generally harmless, but they can be a nuisance — they hurt and make eating, drinking, and talking difficult.
Most people get minor canker sores, which are small, oval shaped, and typically heal on their own within one to two weeks. Some people, however, get major canker sores, which are larger, deeper, more painful, and take significantly longer to go away.
What Causes Canker Sores?
Researchers haven’t pinpointed an exact cause of canker sores, but certain things seem to “trigger” them:
- Certain bacteria in your mouth that can cause allergic reactions
- Diet low in vitamin B-12, zinc, folate (folic acid) or iron
- Emotional stress
- Food sensitivities (especially to chocolate, coffee, strawberries, eggs, nuts, cheese, and spicy or acidic foods)
- Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that causes peptic ulcers
- Hormonal shifts during menstruation
- Injuries to the mouth (i.e. from dental work, rough brushing, sports accidents or interior cheek bites)
- Toothpastes and mouthwash with sodium lauryl sulfate
Canker Sore Prevention
Now that you know what triggers a canker sore, you can better understand how to prevent one from occurring, or at least reduce how often they occur.
First, pay close attention to your diet. Since certain types of food can irritate the soft tissues in the mouth, avoiding those foods can help. If you get canker sores often, reduce the amount of chocolate, coffee, strawberries, eggs, nuts, cheese, and spicy or acidic foods in your diet. For example, orange juice is acidic and can trigger canker sores over time. Lower the amount of orange juice you drink, or cut it out of your diet altogether.
Next, practice good oral hygiene. Brush and floss at least twice a day, but use a soft-bristled toothbrush and don’t brush too hard. Make sure the mouth rinse you use does not contain sodium lauryl sulfate (check the ingredients list on the back of the bottle.) All of this will help keep your mouth, teeth and gums healthy in general.
The third preventive measure you can take is lowering the amount of stress you have in your life. Eliminate sources of stress if you can, but if you can’t, incorporate more time to take care of yourself. That means dedicating time for leisure and relaxation, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly.
Canker Sore Treatments
Minor canker sores will usually go away on their own without treatment in one to two weeks. If this is not the case for you, or you have larger, major canker sores, you may want to consider:
- A special mouthwash containing the steroid dexamethasone to reduce pain and inflammation;l or lidocaine to reduce pain
- Over-the-counter or prescription topicals to help relieve pain and speed along healing. Usually these creams and pastes contain benzocaine, fluocinonide, and/or hydrogen peroxide
- Oral medications when canker sores don’t respond to other treatments
- Cautery procedure conducted by your dentist, which can speed healing and reduce pain.
If you’ve had one or more canker sores for more than two weeks, talk to your dentist. He or she may recommend one of the above treatment methods to help reduce healing time and lower your pain.
However, if your canker sores are related to another health problem such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Behcet’s disease, or HIV/AIDS, you will most likely need treatment for the underlying condition to improve your canker sores. Either way, talk to your dentist today.