Mouth ulcers are painful sores that appear in the mouth, and even though they are uncomfortable, they are usually harmless and most clear up by themselves within a week or two.
Mouth ulcers are common and can usually be managed at home, without seeing your dentist. It is also advised to visit your pharmacist first unless your ulcer has lasted longer than three weeks.
What does a mouth ulcer look like?
Mouth ulcers are usually round or oval sores that commonly appear inside the mouth on the cheeks, lips and tongue. They can be white, red, yellow or grey in colour and swollen.
It is possible to have more than one mouth ulcer at a time and they may spread or grow. They shouldn’t be confused with cold sores, which are small blisters that develop on the lips or around the mouth.
When to see your dentist?
Mouth ulcers can be painful, which can make it uncomfortable to eat, drink or brush your teeth. It is usually safe to treat mouth ulcers at home.
Visit your general practitioner or dentist if your mouth ulcer has lasted three weeks, or you keep getting mouth ulcers, or your mouth ulcer becomes more painful or red, which could be a sign of a bacterial infection, which may need treatment with antibiotics.
How to treat mouth ulcers?
Mouth ulcers don’t usually need to be treated, because they tend to clear up by themselves within a week or two.
However, treatment can help to reduce swelling and ease any discomfort. This may help if you keep getting mouth ulcers or your mouth ulcer affects eating and drinking.
Treatment – Self care and medicines
Things you can do to speed up healing include:
- applying a protective paste recommended by the pharmacist
- using a soft toothbrush to brush your teeth
- using a toothpaste that doesn’t contain sodium lauryl sulphate
- avoiding hard, spicy, salty, acidic or hot food and drink until the ulcer heals
- using a straw to drink cool drinks
- avoiding things that may be triggering your mouth ulcers
You can buy several types of mouth ulcer treatment from a pharmacy. This includes the following:
- Antimicrobial mouthwash may speed up healing and prevent infection of the ulcer. This should not be used by children under two years. It also contains chlorexidine gluconate, which may stain teeth, but this may fade once treatment is finished.
- Painkillers are available as a mouthwash, lozenge, gel or spray. They can sting on first use and your mouth may feel numb but this is temporary. Mouthwash can be diluted with water if stinging continues. Children under 12 should not use mouthwash or gel, and it should not be used for more than seven days in a row.
Is it mouth cancer?
In a few cases, a long-lasting mouth ulcer can be a sign of mouth cancer. Ulcers caused by mouth cancer usually appear on or under the tongue, although you can get them in other areas of the mouth.
Risk factors for mouth cancer include smoking or using products that contain tobacco or drinking alcohol – smokers who are also heavy drinkers have a much higher risk.
It’s important to detect mouth cancer as early as possible. If mouth cancer is detected early, the chances of a complete recovery are good. Regular dental check-ups are the best way to detect the early signs.
What causes mouth ulcers?
The reasons for mouth ulcers are unclear, and are caused by damage to the lining inside of the mouth. For example:
- accidentally biting the inside of your cheek or a sharp tooth
- poorly fitting dentures
- hard food
- a defective filling
It is not always clear what causes recurring mouth ulcers but triggers are thought to include:
- stress and anxiety
- hormonal changes
- eating certain foods such as chocolate, spicy foods, coffee, peanuts, almonds, strawberries, cheese, tomatoes and wheat flour
- toothpaste containing sodium lauryl sulphate
- stopping smoking – when you first stop smoking, you may develop mouth ulcers
This also also be due to your genes. Around 40% of people who keep getting mouth ulcers report that it runs in their family.
Can mouth ulcers be prevented?
It may not be possible to prevent mouth ulcers but the following may help reduce your risk of developing mouth ulcers:
- avoiding certain foods – such as chocolate, spicy foods, coffee, peanuts, almonds, strawberries, cheese, tomatoes and wheat flour, if they cause you to have an ulcer
- not chewing gum
- brushing your teeth with a soft-bristled brush, which may reduce irritation in your mouth
- using toothpaste that doesn’t contain sodium lauryl sulphate
- reducing stress and anxiety – which may be a trigger for some people
Visit a dentist if the sore lasts for three weeks or more. A dentist can help you make sure your problem is actually a mouth ulcer, and not a tooth abscess or a rare form of oral cancer.
Adapted from National Health Service (NHS) UK