Mouth Ulcer, Canker Sore, or Cold Sore—What is the Difference?
If you have noticed a small, painful spot somewhere inside your mouth, it may be a mouth ulcer (canker sore). Understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment solutions can help begin your healing process.
Have you ever experienced an irritation in the soft tissue areas of your mouth—such as your gums, tongue, lips, cheeks, or palate? What about pain while eating, drinking, speaking, or when you are trying to go to sleep at night?
Although mouth ulcers are typically not a serious concern, it is important for your overall oral health that you recognize the symptoms, causes, and treatments of this common issue.
Is it a mouth ulcer?
Mouth ulcers generally appear as small, tender, round or oval-shaped lesions in the soft tissue areas inside your mouth:
- Inner or outer gums
- Inside cheeks or lips
- On or under the tongue
- On the soft palate (the back portion of the roof of your mouth)
You might notice that the affected area has a white, grey, or yellow tint within it. You will perhaps also notice a red border around it. The primary indicator is irritation and/or burning pain.
More scientifically referred to as “recurrent aphthous stomatitis” or “aphthous ulcers” by dental professionals, minor mouth ulcers are also called “canker sores.” This is not to be confused with cold sores, which are quite different in many ways, so it is important to understand the difference between them.
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What is the difference between a mouth ulcer and a cold sore?
A mouth ulcer or canker sore is most likely to form inside of your mouth on oral mucosa. A cold sore more commonly forms on your outer lips or chin area. In some circumstances, cold sores can occur in the mouth where they would be found on the tightly bound tissues of the hard palate (the bony portion in the roof of your mouth).
If you suffer from canker sores, they often develop as a result of injury or trauma to susceptible oral tissues. Cold sores, by contrast, are caused from infection by a strain of the herpes simplex virus(HSV). Because viruses are transmitted by contact between people, viral cold sores such as HSV are contagious and can be spread from person to person. By further contrast, mouth ulcers (canker sores) are not contagious.
In addition, cold sores tend to be larger and more irregularly shaped than mouth ulcers. They typically become fluid-filled blisters before bursting, crusting over, and eventually healing. In most cases, they run their course within one or two weeks.
With those differences in mind, let us turn our attention to why you might experience a mouth ulcer and the signs that you could have one.
Causes and symptoms of mouth ulcers
Generally, the direct cause of mouth ulcers(canker sores) is not well understood. Canker sores are known to be one of the more common lesions occurring in the mouth. It is believed that at least one-fifth (20%) of people can be susceptible and eventually develop at least one mouth ulcer at some point in their lives.
The causes of mouth ulcers
While direct causes are somewhat poorly understood, there are a variety of factors that can trigger the development of mouth ulcers in susceptible individuals:
- A minor injury to the tissue in your mouth:
- During dental treatment (e.g., a filling procedure, orthodontic adjustment, etc.).
- Accidentally biting your tongue or cheek.
- Irritation caused by orthodontic braces, appliances, or retainers.
- Minor injuries from toothbrushing
- An H. Pylori infection or an allergic reaction to bacteria.
- Deficiency of Vitamin B-12, zinc, folate (folic acid), or iron.
- Abrasive oral care products or those containing sodium lauryl sulfate.
- Foods high in acid (such as oranges, strawberries, pineapples, or tomatoes).
- Food or drug sensitivities
- Hormonal changes during menstruation.
- Emotional or psychological stress.
Canker sores may also occur because of certain conditions and diseases, such as:
- Celiac disease, a serious intestinal disorder caused by a sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in most grains
- Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Behcet’s disease, a rare disorder that causes inflammation throughout the body, including the mouth
- A faulty immune system that attacks healthy cells in your mouth instead of pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria
- HIV/AIDS, which suppresses the immune system
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The symptoms of mouth ulcers
You can typically identify a mouth ulcer by noticing a sore spot on the inside of your lips, gums, cheeks, tongue, or the soft palate (back of the roof of your mouth). There may also be a red or inflamed area around the edge of the sore. The ulcer itself is usually white, yellow, or grey.
Additional symptoms might reveal:
- Swelling around the ulcer area.
- Irritation or soreness when brushing your teeth.
- Swollen lymph nodes.
- General feeling of malaise.
- Increased pain when eating foods that are spicy, acidic, or salty.
The good news is that you can easily find relief and treat minor mouth ulcers within one or two weeks. While rare, more serious canker sores may take up to six weeks to heal completely.
The treatment of mouth ulcers
Your mouth ulcer or canker sore will often heal on its own. Even so, there are prescribed and at-home treatments to apply to your mouth ulcers.
Treatments for mouth ulcers that are often prescribed or recommended by your Winnipeg dentist at Tuxedo Dental Group might include:
- Antiseptic and or anesthetic gels
- Corticosteroid ointments specific for in-mouth use
- Mouth rinses
- Immunosuppressant prescription(for more severe mouth ulcer cases)
There are also some mouth ulcer treatments you can use at home for potential relief and to facilitate healing, such as:
- Over-the-counter anesthetic gels may provide temporary relief.
- Stay hydrated with regular water intake.
- Keep your mouth clean by brushing and rinsing.
- Use a warm salt-water rinse several times daily.
- Avoid foods that are hot or spicy until your mouth ulcer heals.
Knowing the symptoms, causes, and treatments for mouth ulcers is a good reason to not ignore them. Follow these insights and recommended treatments to help heal and avoid mouth ulcers.
Get help with mouth ulcers in Winnipeg
If you have any concerns about pain or other symptoms of mouth ulcers or canker sores, contact the dental professionals at Tuxedo Dental Group for a consultation. You can also schedule an oral examination and discuss treatment options for mouth ulcers with our team while you are here.