What are mouth ulcers?
Mouth ulcers, also know as aphthae or canker sores, are usually small, shallow lesions on the lining of the mouth, which exposes sensitive nerve endings. Mouth ulcers occur inside the mouth, unlike cold sores or fever blisters which appear on the outside.
Mouth ulcers can be extremely painful, particularly when eating, drinking or talking; anybody who has ever had one understands a tiny mouth ulcer can be a big pain. Most people will experience a mouth ulcer at some point in their life either caused by a minor injury or recurring ulcers (aphthous stomatitis).
Types of mouth ulcer
There are two types of mouth ulcer: Once-off ulcers, usually caused by a sensitivity or minor injury. Recurring mouth ulcers (aphthous stomatitis): these ulcers affect about 1 in 5 people, often first appearing during childhood or adolescence. In many cases the cause or trigger is unknown. It may be hormonal changes, stress, allergies, sensitivities, or simply when the immune system is low.
There are two types of mouth ulcer:
Once-off ulcers, usually caused by a sensitivity or minor injury.
Recurring mouth ulcers (aphthous stomatitis): these ulcers affect about 1 in 5 people, often first appearing during childhood or adolescence. In many cases the cause or trigger is unknown. It may be hormonal changes, stress, allergies, sensitivities, or simply when the immune system is low.
Causes of mouth ulcers
Once off mouth ulcers can be caused by a sensitivity to food, drink or medication, but are usually caused by a minor injury such as:
- accidentally biting the cheek
- burning the mouth, for example with hot food or drinks
- poorly-fitting dentures
- orthodontic braces
Oddly, stopping smoking can cause short-term mouth ulcers. People with dry mouth (xerostomia) are also more likely to develop ulcers.
Some people find eating acidic fruit (like pineapples, tomatoes or oranges) can cause mouth ulcers. Others, particularly children, can develop ulcers because of common viruses like Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease, the Coxsackie virus and Herpes Simplex (Herpetic Gingivostomatitis).
Women are more likely to experience recurring ulcers which can occur during hormonal changes like puberty, pregnancy, menstruation and menopause.
Genetics seem to play a role – if your parents have had recurring mouth ulcers, then there is a 90% chance you will too.
Stress is a common trigger for mouth ulcers. They can also be a sign of conditions like coeliac disease or nutritional deficiencies (e.g. vitamin B12 which is common in vegans, zinc, iron or folic acid).
Unlike cold sores, mouth ulcers are not contagious.
Mouth ulcers and oral hygiene
Maintaining a good oral care routine when you have a mouth ulcer is important; it helps to prevent a secondary infection and speed up healing. It may be uncomfortable, so use a very soft toothbrush and look for a non-foaming toothpaste like GUM Paroex Gel or all-natural Olgani. Finish off by rinsing the mouth twice a day, with salt water or an alcohol-free mouthwash like Dentyl Dual Action or GUM Paroex which contains chlorhexidine and CPC.
For more advice read our Oral Care and Mouth Ulcers blog post.
Treatment for mouth ulcers
Mouth ulcers are not contagious and usually clear up by themselves in a few days without treatment. Consult your doctor or dentist if your ulcer does not heal within three weeks.
The mainstay of management is relieving pain and discomfort and helping the mouth ulcer heal more quickly.
For rapid pain relief use over-the-counter medication; Aloclair, which contains soothing Aloe vera, works almost immediately, forming a protective barrier over the exposed nerve endings, giving almost immediate relief.
Avoid irritating the ulcer with acidic, spicy, salty or crunchy foods. When drinking, use a straw (ideally eco-friendly) to bypass the ulcer; be careful with very hot drinks though as you can burn the back of your throat. Avoid alcohol – and tobacco – both can dry out and irritate the lining of the mouth.
Most mouth ulcers will last 10 days to 14 days at most. Consult your doctor if it lasts much longer, or if you experience a fever or very large mouth ulcers.
3 tips to manage mouth ulcers
(1) Avoid very hot, spicy, salty or acidic foods and drinks
(2) Use Aloclair to form a protective barrier over the ulcer and speed up the healing
Recommended products for mouth ulcers