Canker sore

Definition

A canker sore is a painful, open sore in the mouth. Canker sores are white or yellow and surrounded by a bright red area. They are not cancerous.

A canker sore is not the same as a fever blister (cold sore).

Alternative Names

Aphthous ulcer; Ulcer - aphthous

Causes

Canker sores are a common form of mouth ulcer. They may occur with viral infections. In some cases, the cause is unknown.

Canker sores may also be linked to problems with the body's immune system. The sores may also be brought on by:

Other things that can trigger canker sores include:

Anyone can develop a canker sore. Women are more likely to get them than men. Canker sores may run in families.

Symptoms

Canker sores most often appear on the inner surface of the cheeks and lips, tongue, upper surface of the mouth, and the base of the gums.

Symptoms include:

Less common symptoms include:

Pain often goes away in 7 to 10 days. It can take 1 to 3 weeks for a canker sore to completely heal. Large ulcers can take longer to heal.

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider can often make the diagnosis by looking at the sore.

If canker sores persist or continue to return, tests should be done to look for other causes, such as erythema multiforme, drug allergies, herpes infection, and bullous lichen planus.

You may need further testing or a biopsy to look for other causes of mouth ulcers. Canker sores are not cancer and do not cause cancer. There are types of cancer, however, that may first appear as a mouth ulcer that does not heal.

Treatment

In most cases, the canker sores go away without treatment.

Try not to eat hot or spicy foods, which can cause pain.

Use over-the-counter medicines that ease pain in the area.

Medicines prescribed by your provider may be needed for severe cases. These may include:

Brush your teeth twice a day and floss your teeth every day. Also, get routine dental check-ups.

In some cases, gastric acid-reducing medicines can decrease the discomfort. 

Outlook (Prognosis)

Canker sores almost always heal on their own. The pain should decrease in a few days. Other symptoms disappear in 10 to 14 days.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if:

References

Bope ET, Kellerman RD. Diseases of the skin. In: Bope ET, Kellerman RD, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2017. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 14.

Chattopadhyay A, Shetty, KV. Recurrent aphthous stomatitis. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2011;44(1):79-88. PMID: 21093624 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21093624.

Daniels TE, Jordan RC. Diseases of the mouth and salivary glands. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 425.

Lingen MW. Head and neck. In: Kumar V, Abbas AK, Aster JC, eds. Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 16. 


Review Date: 4/3/2017
Reviewed By: Josef Shargorodsky, MD, MPH, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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