Mouth ulcer. The name just sounds gross and uncomfortable.
And that’s because it is both unsightly and annoying. But even though they look dangerous, they’re usually harmless.
What Is a Mouth Ulcer?
A mouth ulcer is a small, painful lesion that develops in the mouth near the bottom of the gums. They’re also called canker soars but whatever you call it, it’s not fun.
Mouth ulcers are small, roundish, and show up inside the cheeks and on the lips and tongue. They’re usually white, yellow, grey, or red and look swollen. Although they’re often confused with cold sores, they’re not the same thing. A cold sore is a small blister on the lips and mouth area and will itch or burn.
Women, adolescents, and those with a family history of mouth ulcers are more likely to get them. Fortunately, they usually go away by themselves in a matter of weeks and they’re not contagious. But if you do have an ulcer for longer than 3-4 weeks, you should get in touch with your doctor or dentist.
There are three major types of mouth ulcers: minor, major, and herpetiform. We’ll discuss these in more detail below.
What Causes Mouth Ulcers?
A mouth ulcer comes about when the soft tissue inside the mouth is irritated or damaged. This can be for a host of reasons, including:
- Brushing your teeth too hard
- Sports injury
- Biting the tongue or inside of the cheek
- Damage from hard food
- Dentures that don’t fit well
- Dental fillings that are defective
- Extreme stress or anxiety
- Hormonal changes
- Toothpaste that contains sodium lauryl sulfate
- Genetics (40% of people who usually get mouth ulcers say that it runs in their family)
Canker sores can also be caused by medical conditions. At that point, the sore may not be the main concern, but it’s good to know.
Here are some common medical conditions that can lead to mouth ulcers:
- Viral infections
- Vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies
- Crohn’s disease
- Coeliac disease
- Reactive arthritis
- A weakened immune system
- Behcet’s Disease
Treatments & Medications
Sadly, mouth ulcers can also be caused by certain treatments and medications. These can include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)
- Radiotherapy and chemotherapy
What Is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate?
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is a common culprit in many cases of mouth ulcers. It is the agent in toothpaste that makes it foam up during brushing.
The reason it isn’t good is that it causes sloughing of oral mucosa, drying the protective layer in your mouth. Because of the dryness, then, it’s more likely you can get a mouth ulcer.
Mouth Ulcer Symptoms
In order to fully understand the symptoms of mouth ulcers, let’s revisit the different types: minor, major, and herpetiform.
With a minor ulcer, you may notice a small round or oval sore that’s sensitive to the touch. This will take a few weeks to heal and most likely won’t cause scarring.
A major ulcer will be larger than a minor ulcer and usually have less rounded edges. These can take up to six weeks to fully heal and they can leave you with a scar.
Herpetiform is the scariest-looking type of mouth ulcer. It will appear in groups. You’ll notice a group of sores about the size of a pin clustered together, usually between 10 and 100 sores. They also don’t have rounded edges and should heal within several weeks and shouldn’t cause scarring. These are mostly found in adults.
How Long Do Mouth Ulcers Last?
As we mentioned above, most mouth ulcers will disappear on their own in a matter of weeks. However, there are certain things you can do to help reduce the pain, swelling, and discomfort of ulcers.
We’ll cover treatment options below.
Home Remedies For Mouth Ulcers
There are lots of ways you can treat mouth ulcers using the things you have at home. As ulcers are typically harmless and go away on their own, these remedies are mainly to help reduce pain and swelling.
Here are some home remedy ideas for treating mouth ulcers:
- Don’t eat spicy or sour foods while you have ulcers
- Drink a lot of water
- Rinse your mouth with warm, slightly salted water on a regular basis
- Keep your mouth area generally clean
- Take a non-NSAID pain reliever, like acetaminophen or paracetamol
- Put antiseptic gel on the ulcer(s)
- Rinse your mouth with an alcohol-free mouthwash
Mouth Ulcer Professional Treatment
So when do you get a professional involved? Because, again, mouth ulcers almost always go away on their own, and their not dangerous to your health. They’re mainly annoying and painful.
If you have swelling or any type of irritation because of your ulcer(s), you can ask your dermatologist for a prescription for a topical ointment. There are many treatment options that you can pick up at your local pharmacy.
Here are some of the most common pharmaceutical treatments:
- Antimicrobial mouthwash: this can help quicken the healing of your mouth ulcer and even keep it from getting infected. You should know, however, that it contains chlorhexidine gluconate, which can stain your teeth. The stains fade after you’re done using the mouthwash.
- Painkillers: these can be mouthwash, sprays, lozenges, or gels. These may very well sting when you use them, but that means they’re working.
- Corticosteroid lozenges: these help speed up the healing, and it’s best to use them as soon as you notice an ulcer develop.
Instead of these medications, your doctor, general practitioner, or dentist may prescribe you a stronger medicine if the pain and swelling are very bad. With all of these medications, children under 12 should not take them.
How To Prevent Mouth Ulcers?
Unfortunately, it may not be possible to prevent ulcers as they’re often caused by things outside of our control (like certain medical conditions or family history). However, there are some actions you can take to lessen the risk of mouth ulcers.
Here’s a quick rundown of what you can do:
- Avoid mouth-irritating food: acidic fruits such as pineapple, grapefruits, oranges, and lemon.
- Avoid salty chips (which are also abrasive), nuts, and spicy foods.
- Eat more whole grains, vegetables, and nonacidic fruits.
- Eat an overall balanced diet as well as multivitamins.
- Don’t chew gum.
- Brush your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush and toothpaste free of sodium lauryl sulfate.
- Do what you can to reduce stress and anxiety (a therapist can help you with this).
- Make sure you get enough sleep and let your body and mind rest.
So if you do these things, you may not be able to totally prevent mouth ulcers, but you can definitely reduce the risk of getting them.
- A mouth ulcer (aka a canker sore or tongue herpes) is a small pimple-looking lesion inside the mouth near the gums. It can be classified as minor, major, or herpetiform.
- Mouth ulcers can be caused by many things, including certain medical conditions, poor oral hygiene habits, and something called sodium lauryl sulfate that’s in many toothpastes.
- The symptoms of a mouth ulcer can include a visible sore, sensitivity, soreness, and pain.
- Mouth ulcers usually last just a few weeks before going away on their own.
- You can remedy the symptoms of a mouth ulcer with things you have at home, like rinsing with salt water, taking an NSAID, and drinking lots of water.
- A professional can treat your mouth ulcers with many things, but usually it involves antimicrobial mouthwash, painkillers, and/or corticosteroid lozenges.
- You can help prevent mouth sores by avoiding foods high in acid or salt, reducing stress, brushing with a soft-bristled toothbrush, and eating a balanced diet.