If you’ve ever had a canker sore, you’re not alone — around 20% of the general population gets these occasional mouth ulcers. And while they may be benign, they’re still unpleasant. The sores can appear on the inner cheeks, lips, or even the soft palate, and they’re painful, particularly when touched. If your sores are particularly painful or frequent, they could even impact your ability to eat, drink, and talk.
The condition, known more scientifically as aphthous stomatitis, remains something of a mystery, with medical researchers still unsure of the specific cause. Without understanding the source of the lesions, it’s incredibly difficult to effectively treat them.
What is a Canker Sore?
There are plenty of misconceptions about canker sores. Due to a similar appearance, they are often confused with the cold sores characteristic of oral herpes, despite being non-contagious. Some doctors treat canker sores like cold sores, but while an anti-viral medication can help relieve the symptoms of herpes, it is ineffective against canker sores.
Some researchers believe canker sores are an immune system problem, but in most ways they behave very differently than other autoimmune diseases. While autoimmune diseases often accompany each other, canker sores don’t seem to have any correlation with other autoimmune complaints.
Instead, new research suggests that canker sores may not be a disease at all. A study at the University of Gothenburg suggests that rather than looking at canker sores in a vacuum, they should be treated like a headache or a fever: A symptom that could result from any number of causes.
Just like a headache or fever, the discomfort that accompanies canker sores can be individually treated, such as with a topical numbing gel or a painkiller. But just like taking a painkiller for recurring headaches can prevent you from identifying the root cause of the headache, treating canker sores could be preventing a deeper understanding of how these lesions are tied to other overall health problems.
Finding Canker Sore Relief
For now, canker sore research is still largely feeling around in the dark. Until researchers are able to identify a source of these painful oral ulcers, the best we can do is to relieve the pain and discomfort as effectively as possible.
If you’re suffering from a canker sore, a salt water and baking soda rinse can reduce the pain. You can also pick up some topical numbing gel or rinse; Benzocaine is a safe and popular numbing agent for this kind of use. Acidic or spicy foods can aggravate a canker sore, so it’s best to avoid those while you have one.
If home remedies aren’t doing the trick, you can always talk with your dentist. Most canker sores heal on their own, but your dentist may be able to prescribe a topical paste or a mouth rinse to help you manage the pain.