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Mouth Sores (The Basics)

chewing gum, gum

What causes mouth sores?

Different conditions can cause mouth sores, including:

  • Canker sores – Canker sores are open sores (also called “ulcers”) that are white or yellow in the middle, and red around the edges. Certain things make canker sores more likely to develop. These include certain foods, infections, and biting the tongue or inside of the cheek.
  • Mouth cancer (also called “oral cancer”) – Mouth cancer can cause sores or growths inside the mouth or on the lips or tongue. Mouth cancer can also cause the inside of the mouth, lips, or tongue to turn white or dark. Usually, these symptoms are not painful at first. Some people find out they have mouth cancer only after a routine medical or dental exam.
  • Leukoplakia – This condition causes white or gray patches inside the mouth or on the tongue. These patches can be thick and usually develop over time. This condition can happen after something irritates the inside of the mouth. Smoking or chewing tobacco can also cause leukoplakia. Leukoplakia can sometimes turn into mouth cancer after a few years, but this is uncommon.
  • Cheilitis – Cheilitis is a condition that makes the lips look “chapped” and get red and scaly. A few things can cause cheilitis, including windburn, licking the lips a lot, and certain medicines and foods. There is more than one type of cheilitis. “Actinic” cheilitis is caused by too much sun and can later turn into lip cancer. “Angular” cheilitis is caused by an infection, and usually happens in older people whose dentures don’t fit well. It causes redness and cracking in the corners of the mouth.

Besides mouth sores, people can also get dark spots inside their mouth. In people with dark-colored skin, dark spots are usually normal. But in people with light-colored skin, dark spots can be a sign of a serious problem.

Should I see the doctor, dentist, or nurse?

Yes. See your doctor, dentist, or nurse if:

  • You have a growth in your mouth, or on your tongue or lips.
  • You have a patch of dry, scaly skin on your lips that doesn’t heal.
  • You have a white patch in your mouth or on your tongue.
  • You have a dark spot in your mouth, and have light-colored skin.
  • Your symptoms last longer than 2 weeks, or heal and then come back.
  • You have mouth pain, or trouble eating, swallowing, or talking.
  • Your dentures don’t fit well.

Will I need tests?

Maybe. The doctor or nurse will talk with you and do an exam. They might also do a test called a biopsy. For this test, the doctor will take a tiny sample of the sore, growth, or area of color change. Then another doctor will look at the sample under a microscope.

How are mouth sores treated?

Treatment depends on the cause of your symptoms and whether they bother you.

  • Canker sores usually get better by themselves within a few weeks. To help with pain, you can use an over-the-counter medicine made to soothe canker sores. You can also avoid eating or drinking hot and spicy foods. If your symptoms are severe, your doctor might prescribe a mouthwash or medicine to use on the area.
  • Mouth cancer is usually treated with one or more of the following treatments:
    • Surgery
    • Radiation therapy – Radiation kills cancer cells.
    • Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is the medical term for medicines that kill cancer cells or stop them from growing.
  • Leukoplakia is sometimes treated with surgery to remove the abnormal patches.
  • Treatment for cheilitis depends on the type of cheilitis. Your doctor might recommend that you use petroleum jelly on the area. If you have an infection, they will prescribe an ointment with a medicine in it for you to use on the area. If poorly-fitting dentures caused your infection, you should ask your dentist to fix them.

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