What causes mouth ulcers? 24 possible conditions

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Mouth Ulcers

Canker sores or mouth ulcers are normally small lesions that develop in your mouth or at the base of your gums. They are annoying and can make eating, drinking, and talking uncomfortable. Factors that can put you at risk for developing mouth ulcers are being a woman or having a family history of mouth ulcers.

Mouth ulcers are not contagious and usually go away within a week. However, if you get a canker sore that is large or extremely painful or if it lasts for a long time without healing, you should seek the care of a physician.

What Triggers Mouth Ulcers?

There is no definite cause behind mouth ulcers. However, certain factors and/or triggers have been identified. These include:

  • minor injury to mouth from dental work, hard brushing, sports injury, or accidental bite
  • toothpastes and mouth rinses that contain sodium lauryl sulfate
  • food sensitivities to acidic foods like strawberries, citrus, and pineapples and other trigger foods like chocolate and coffee
  • lack of essential vitamins like B-12, zinc, folate, and iron
  • allergic response to mouth bacteria
  • hormonal influxes during menstruation
  • emotional stress
  • bacterial, viral, or fungal infections

Mouth ulcers also can be a sign of conditions that are more serious and require medical treatment, such as:

  • celiac disease (a condition in which the body is unable to tolerate gluten)
  • inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Bechet’s disease (a condition that causes inflammation throughout the body)
  • a malfunctioning immune system that causes your body to attack the healthy mouth cells instead of viruses and bacteria
  • HIV/AIDs

What Symptoms Are Associated with Mouth Ulcers?

There are three types of canker sores: minor, major, and herpetiform.

Minor

Minor canker sores are small, oval-shaped ulcers that heal within one to two weeks with no scarring.

Major

Major canker sores are larger and deeper than minor ones. They have irregular edges and can take up to six weeks to heal. Major mouth ulcers can result in extensive scarring.

Herpetiform

Herpetiform canker sores are pinpoint size, occur in clusters of 10 to 100, and often affect adults. This type of mouth ulcer has irregular edges and will often heal without scarring within one to two weeks.

If you develop any of the following, you should see a physician:

  • unusually large mouth ulcers
  • new mouth ulcers before the old ones heal
  • sores that last more than three weeks
  • sores that don’t hurt
  • mouth ulcers that extend to the lips
  • pain that can’t be controlled with over-the-counter or natural medication
  • severe problems eating and drinking
  • high fever or diarrhea whenever the canker sores appear

Testing and Diagnosis of Mouth Ulcers

Your doctor will be able to diagnose mouth ulcers with only a visual exam. If you are having frequent, severe mouth ulcers, you might be tested for other medical conditions.

What Are Some Ways to Treat Mouth Ulcers?

Most mouth ulcers do not need treatment. However, if you get mouth ulcers often or they are extremely painful, there are a number of treatments that can decrease pain and healing time. These include:

  • using a rinse of saltwater and baking soda
  • placing milk of magnesia on the mouth ulcer
  • covering mouth ulcers with baking soda paste
  • using over-the-counter benzocaine products like Orajel or Anbesol
  • applying ice to canker sores
  • using mouth rinse that contains a steroid to reduce pain and swelling
  • using topical pastes
  • using oral steroids
  • placing damp tea bags on your mouth ulcer
  • cauterizing or burn sealing the tissue with a chemical cauterizer like silver nitrate
  • taking nutritional supplements like folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and zinc
  • trying natural remedies such as chamomile tea, echinacea, myrrh, and licorice

Tips to Prevent Mouth Ulcers

There are steps you can take to reduce the occurrence of mouth ulcers. Avoiding foods that irritate your mouth can be helpful. That includes acidic fruits like pineapple, grapefruit, oranges, or lemon, as well as nuts, chips, or anything spicy. Instead, choose whole grains and alkaline (nonacidic) fruits and vegetables.

Try to avoid talking while you are chewing your food. Reducing stress and maintaining good oral hygiene by using dental floss daily and brushing after meals may also help.

Some people find avoiding soft bristle toothbrushes and mouthwashes that contain sodium lauryl sulfate also helps. If you have dental or orthodontic mouth devices with sharp edges, you should cover those edges with wax your dentist can give you.

Article Sources:

  • Canker Sores, Cold Sores & Common Mouth Sores. (n.d.). American Dental Organization. Retrieved June 18, 2012, from http://www.ada.org/2982.aspx
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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Cold Sores

Cold sores are red, fluid-filled blisters that appear most often near the mouth. They have no cure, are contagious, and may reoccur without warning.

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2

Mouth Sores

Mouth sores are common ailments that affect about 80 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. These sores can appear on any of the soft tissues of the mouth, including the lips, cheeks, gums, tongue, and floo...

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3

Herpes Simplex

The herpes simplex virus, also known as HSV, is an infection that causes herpes. Herpes can appear in various parts of the body, most commonly on the genitals or mouth. There are two types of the herpes simplex virus...

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4

Measles

Measles is a very contagious infection of the respiratory system. One of its several symptoms is a sore or swollen throat.

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5

Canker Sore

A canker sore is a mouth ulcer or sore that is open and painful. The most common sign is a burning or tingling in an area of your mouth that the red sore appears.

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6

Oral Thrush

Oral thrush occurs when a yeast infection develops inside your mouth. It's marked by white lesions on your tongue, inner cheeks, gums, palate, and/or tonsils.

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7

Herpes Stomatitis

Recurrent herpes simplex labialis, also known as oral or orolabial herpes, is an infection of the mouth area caused by the herpes simplex virus. It is a common and contagious infection that spreads easily. According t...

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8

Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a contagious condition that usually affects young children. It presents as a rash on the hands and feet along with blisters in the mouth.

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9

Esophagitis

Esophagitis is inflammation of the esophogas that can be caused by acid reflux or certain medications. You may develop a sore throat or heartburn.

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10

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease and the most common type of lupus. One of its common symptoms is a rash on the cheeks and nose called a "butterfly rash."

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11

Gum Disease (Gingivitis)

Gingivitis is an infection of the gums. If left untreated, it can become a more severe infection known as periodontitis. The American Dental Association (ADA) states that gingivitis and periodontitis are the majo...

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12

Acute HIV Infection

Acute HIV infection is also known as primary HIV infection or acute retroviral syndrome. This condition occurs within the first two to four weeks after someone is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. It i...

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13

Oral Cancers

Oral cancer is a cancer that develops in the tissues of the mouth or throat. Most oral cancers develop in the squamous cells found in your mouth, tongue, and lips. Oral cancers are most often discovered after they hav...

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14

Lichen Planus

Lichen planus is a common skin rash that is not contagious. Common symptoms may include lesions in the mouth which may be painful or cause a burning sensation.

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15

Tongue inflammation

Your tongue is a vital muscle that aids in the digestion of food and helps you to speak properly. While many of us do not usually think about the health of our tongues, a number of conditions can affect this muscle...

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16

Pemphigoid

Pemphigoid is a rare autoimmune disorder that can develop at any age, but that most often affects the elderly. Pemphigoid is caused by a malfunction of the immune system and results in skin rashes and blistering on th...

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17

Leishmaniasis

Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease. It is spread by the bite of an insect called a sandfly. Leishmaniasis is sometimes called kala-azar. There are two main forms of the disease. Each is associated with differen...

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18

Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is caused by infection with the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It infects warm, moist areas of the body, including: the urethra (the tube that drains urine fro...

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19

Neutropenia

Neutropenia is an abnormally low level of neutrophils in the blood. Neutrophils are white blood cells produced in bone marrow and make up about 60% of blood.

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20

Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection. It is caused by a type of bacteria known as Treponema pallidum. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2006, more than 36,000 cases of syphilis wer...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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