What Are Canker Sores And How Do You Get Rid Of Them?

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So much pain from one tiny sore.

It’s always a terrible surprise when you take a big bite of something spicy and learn you have a sore in your mouth. Or brush your teeth and suddenly hit a tender spot that wasn’t there the day before. If the source of your pain is a small white spot on one of the pink surfaces in your mouth, it’s likely you’ve got a canker sore.

Canker sores are small, shallow ulcers that develop in the soft tissues of the mouth. They can pop up on your cheeks, the base of your gums, and even on your tongue, Erich Voigt, M.D., director of the division of general otolaryngology at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SELF. “They can happen to anyone,” he says. And they can hurt like hell, causing a stinging pain that intensifies when you eat something acidic or spicy, touch them, or even drink water.

Unlike cold sores or fever blisters, canker sores are not caused by the herpes virus. (If you have a lesion in your mouth that’s blistering, has tiny bubbles of clear fluid, or is crusted, see your doctor. That could be a herpes sore.) What causes canker sores isn’t really known, though there are a handful of things that may trigger them.

“What causes canker sores isn’t really known, though there are a handful of things that may trigger them.”

“There can be lots of different triggers, like local trauma, biting the cheek, or a reaction to certain foods,” Voigt says. Overzealous brushing, harsh mouthwashes, spicy or acidic foods, hormonal changes, and stress can all trigger canker sores, according to the Mayo Clinic. Coxsackie viruses, or “hand, foot, and mouth disease,” which is common in kids and not normally serious, can cause these little sores.

Experts believe canker sores are likely the result of autoimmune activity (basically, the body attacking itself). You may just get one randomly because of an immune reaction — maybe your body’s fighting off a virus. Canker sores are also a side effect of some autoimmune conditions like celiac disease, IBD, and Behçet’s disease (which causes inflammation in the blood vessels), and are common in those with HIV/AIDS.

Most cankers sores will heal on their own within a week. Staying hydrated to keep the mucosal lining healthy, avoiding spicy, acidic, and “sharp” foods (think: tortilla chips), and brushing your teeth cautiously will help sores heal quicker. To manage discomfort, over-the-counter numbing agents and painkillers like Orajel and Kank-A are available. “They can help, but they’re not great,” says Voigt. Mostly because they wash off pretty quickly. Topical steroids and mouth rinses provide better relief, but you’ll need to get a prescription for them.

Swishing salt water around in your mouth may help, too — Voigt says anecdotally it can help ease pain and speed up healing, but there’s no hard scientific evidence that it works. It won’t hurt to try, though. (That is, it might literally hurt as you do it, but it won’t make things worse and might make them better.) The Mayo Clinic also suggests dabbing milk of magnesia on the sore a few times a day. Some people apply alum, a pickling agent you can find at grocery stores, to the sore to speed heeling, but this does not rank among doctor recommendations. [Ed note: Following the lead of enthusiastic Amazon commenters, two SELF.com editors have tried this; it burns like a mother, but seems to speed healing. They are not doctors and this is not a medically approved suggestion.]

If you have a mouth sore that lasts longer than a week, bleeds, or gets bigger over time, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor to make sure there’s nothing more serious going on like oral cancer or syphilis. In most situations, though, canker sores are nothing to worry about and just a normal nuisance we all have to live through. As long as you remember to avoid hot sauce, you’ll make it through.

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