Dealing with Canker Sores

They’re painful, aggravating and their underlying cause is still unknown. And canker sores affect as much as 60 percent of the population, from parents to kids, says Children’s Hospital of Michigan pediatrician Dr. Lynn Smitherman.

Here’s a closer look at these unwanted mouth guests, including who they affect and what your family can do about them.

What are they?

Aphthous ulcers, commonly known as canker sores, are lesions on the inside of the mouth. They vary from mildly irritating sores the size of a pin to ulcers a quarter-inch in diameter. Often, canker sores disappear on their own in a few days – but in some people, they can last as long as six weeks and disrupt normal eating and drinking habits.

According to Smitherman, canker sores are often confused with cold sores, but there is a major difference. Cold sores are caused by a virus, while canker sores are not – and so only cold sores are contagious. Cold sores also appear around the lips and sometimes under the nose, while canker sores only appear on the inside of the mouth.

Who gets them – and why?

Canker sores are more common in kids that are 10 or older, although Smitherman says kids as young as 4 can get them. While the reasons behind canker sores are still relatively unknown, there are a few known common risk factors. A recently published paper in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine notes most likely factor is trauma to the inside of the mouth. This can occur when kids bite their tongue and cheeks.

Smitherman points out several other risk factors. They include food allergies, sports mouth guards that are worn improperly, new braces and a chemical commonly found in toothpastes and dish soaps called sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).

"Stress is also a factor in older kids that are in high school or college," says Smitherman, "especially ones that are taking exams."

Preventing or treating

To prevent canker sores, Smitherman recommends parents keep kids’ lips moisturized to deter kids from biting their lips. Generally, the best prevention for both kids and adults is to avoid trauma to the inside of the mouth.

If kids or adults do develop canker sores, however, there are a few things they can do to keep irritation and discomfort at a minimum. The American Dental Association recommends avoiding spicy or acidic foods (such as citrus fruits) that can increase irritation – and using over-the-counter topical anesthetics and antimicrobial mouth rinses for temporary relief.

Topical prescription medications are available, but in most cases, there is no need for them. For most people, canker sores will clear up in about five days.

While Smitherman calls canker sores "a nuisance," she says there usually is no need to visit the family doctor unless the sores keep coming back.

"If (the canker sores) last for several months, then it might be necessary to go to the doctor just in case the sores are a sign for some underlying problems," Smitherman says.

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