Understanding Canker Sores

Dr. Steven Kacel is a dentistry expert who has won numerous awards for his work in the field. A graduate of Northwestern University’s dental school, Kacel earned his D.D.S. in 1980 and has been treating patients ever since. In this article., he explains what canker sores are.

When someone has a lot of sores in his mouth, he usually thinks that it is a canker sore. However, in reality, the sores that most people have in their mouths are actually something known as recurrent aphthous ulcers. Recurrent aphthous ulcers are actually what most people have when they think they have a canker sore. The telltale signs for something like this are little spots on the floor of the mouth, the inside cheeks, the tip of the tongue, and the side of the tongue. These sores are not that big as usually they are around 4 mm in diameter.

With recurrent aphthous ulcers, the sores themselves start out sort of red, and eventually get a white head, almost like a pimple. And eventually the “pimple” will pop, and at that time, the sore has officially become an ulcer. And it is at that stage that the pain really begins because the ulcers are much more painful than the first stage of the sore. Not only that, but it is at the ulcer stage where this becomes contagious. Once the ulcer has come on, the good news is that the sore itself will finally be able to heal. From the point when the ulcer comes on to when it is entirely gone is usually seven to 10 days.

Now, that is all that is going on with recurrent aphthous ulcers. Canker sores, meanwhile are something totally different. With canker sores, you usually see many more of the sores themselves in the mouth at one time. Some people who are treated actually have hundreds of them at once. The sores associated with canker sores are typically much smaller than those you would get with recurrent aphthous ulcers—they are usually 1 mm to 3 mm in diameter, versus 4 mm with the recurrent aphthous ulcers.

In addition, the canker sores are the virus; they are known as the herpes. So a canker sore is technically a herpetiform ulcer.

Like recurrent aphthous ulcers, canker sores also have a seven- to 10-day lifetime, even though they never get the white head like the recurrent aphthous ulcers do and they never ulcerate. Because they don’t ulcerate, canker sores are typically not as painful, either.

Unfortunately for people suffering from recurrent aphthous ulcers or canker sores, there is usually little that most dentists can do the help with the pain. More often than not, patients are asked to just suffer through it.

Products are coming out on the market to help with the pain of an ulceration. One of these, in fact, uses a powerful acid that only a dentist can dab on the ulcer. The acid stings because it kills the nerve endings while the sore is in its ulcerated state. But then it heals the sore and the area fills in nicely.

Aside from that powerful acid, though, there are a lot of there products, too, that people can use. The downside to these is that the mouth is wet, so any products that a person would consider using would likely have a hard time sticking inside their mouth.

You can’t just put a bandage on a sore in the mouth, and if you put a gel — like a benzocaine type of gel or an oral-based gel — then the gel will only stay on the spot for a few seconds before you swallow it. Because of that, there isn’t much that one can do to control the pain associated with canker sores.

*Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your healthcare provider. We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with an appropriate healthcare provider.

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