What is a canker sore?
A canker sore is a shallow sore shaped like a crater (ulcer) on your tongue or on the inside of your lip or cheek. Canker sores have a red border and a white or yellow center. They may be painful and can make it hard to talk and eat. You may have one or more than one canker sore at a time. Unlike cold sores, you cannot spread canker sores to other people.
Anyone can get a canker sore, but women, teens, and young adults have them more often. Most people have canker sores at some time in their lives, and some people have them regularly.
What causes it?
The cause of canker sores is unknown, but they tend to run in families. Canker sores are not contagious.
Canker sores may also develop when you:
- Are stressed or tired.
- Hurt your mouth, such as biting your lip.
- Have braces on your teeth.
- Are sensitive to certain foods that irritate your mouth.
- Do not get enough vitamins or minerals in your diet, such as iron, vitamin B12, and folic acid.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom of a canker sore is getting a shallow ulcer on your tongue or on the inside of your lip or cheek. The sore may be large or small, and it will have a red border and a white or yellow center. You might have more than one canker sore at a time.
Canker sores usually begin with a burning or tingling feeling. They may be swollen and painful. Having a canker sore can make it hard to talk or eat.
Canker sores may hurt for about a week. Minor canker sores heal in about 2 weeks, but major canker sores can take longer to heal. Some people get another canker sore after the first sore has healed. Most canker sores heal without a scar.
How is it diagnosed?
If you see your doctor or dentist about the pain caused by your canker sores, the doctor or dentist will do a physical exam by looking in your mouth to diagnose the canker sores.
How is a canker sore treated?
You do not need to see a doctor for most canker sores. They will get better on their own. There are many things you can try at home to relieve the pain caused by your canker sores:
- Eat soft, bland foods that are easy to swallow, such as yogurt or cream soup. Cut your food into small pieces or mash or puree it. Avoid coffee, chocolate, spicy or salty foods, citrus fruits or juices, nuts, seeds, and tomatoes.
- Drink cold fluids, such as water or iced tea, or eat Popsicles. Sometimes fluid touching the canker sore can cause a stinging pain. Use a straw so the fluid doesn't touch the canker sore. Hold ice on the canker sore until it is numb.
- Carefully brush your teeth so you don't touch the sore with the toothbrush bristles.
- Rinse your mouth with salt water. To make a saltwater rinse, dissolve 1 tsp (5 mL) of salt in 1 cup (240 mL) of water.
- Buy an over-the-counter numbing medicine, such as Anbesol or Orabase, to put on your canker sores. Use a cotton swab to apply the medicine. Put it on your sores 3 to 4 times a day. Ask your doctor before using mouth-numbing medicine for children of any age. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that some of these can be dangerous.
- Take a pain reliever, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin (such as Bayer), ibuprofen (such as Advil), or naproxen (such as Aleve). Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
If your canker sores do not feel better after you try these steps at home for a few weeks, you may need to see your doctor or dentist. They may recommend medicines that will help relieve pain caused by your canker sores. Usually these medicines are swished or gargled in your mouth, or they are painted on the sore. Your doctor may prescribe steroid cream or paste to rub on your canker sore and/or a prescription mouthwash to use.
Talk to your doctor if you have a fever, have trouble swallowing, or if your canker sores keep coming back. You may have another problem that is causing your symptoms.
How can you prevent it?
Most of the time the cause of canker sores is unknown. Unless you know what causes your canker sores, you cannot prevent them from happening. If you do know what causes your canker sores, you can help prevent them by avoiding what you know causes them. For example, if you have gotten canker sores in the past from hurting the inside of your mouth, you might help prevent them by chewing your food slowly and carefully, trying not to talk and chew at the same time, and using a soft-bristled toothbrush when you brush your teeth.
If you have gotten canker sores in the past by eating foods that have a lot of acid (such as citrus fruits or tomatoes) and sharp or harsh foods (such as bread crusts, corn chips, or potato chips), it might help to avoid these. Other ways that might help to prevent canker sores include limiting your use of alcohol and tobacco and controlling the stress in your life.
In general, it is important to get enough vitamins and minerals in your diet, like folic acid, vitamin B12, zinc, and iron.
Current as of: March 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine