Mouth sores can be a huge annoyance. And if you've ever had one, you know exactly how troubling and uncomfortable they can be.
They aren't usually harmful or dangerous—most mouth sores are just canker sores or healing wounds from accidental bites.
That said, understanding the causes and symptoms of mouth sores is a great way to help prevent them from occurring in the first place.
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about mouth sores, including their causes, symptoms, treatments, and preventive measures.
What Are Mouth Sores?
Mouth sores are small ulcers, bumps, or cuts that occur inside your mouth. They can appear in several places throughout your mouth:
- On or underneath your tongue
- Your inner cheeks, gums, and lips
- Outside your mouth
- The roof of your mouth
- Your throat
Most of the time, mouth sores look like red or white spots on your mouth. Outside of the affected area, there may be a red ring and a bit of swelling. But this usually doesn't go further than the surface.
Most people experience some kind of mouth sores at least once during their lifetime. Depending on the type and severity, they can range from unnoticeable to extremely painful.
Most types are harmless—they last for a week or two and go away on their own. Others (such as cold sores) can be caused by a virus and flare up from time to time.
Causes Of Mouth Sores
Mouth sores have several different causes. Some are preventable through proper hygiene, care, and lifestyle choices, while others are the result of a virus or underlying medical condition.
Biting Your Lip, Tongue, Or Cheek
Have you ever accidentally bitten the inside of your mouth? There are several reasons this might happen:
- Accidental biting from chewing or talking
- Incorrect denture fit or broken teeth
- Grinding your teeth during sleep
- Injury to the mouth from sharp food, utensils, etc.
- Wisdom teeth overgrowth
All of these can cause minor wounds and sores, which usually feel tender for a few days after the incident. The discomfort may last for a few days before subsiding, similar to a scab and swelling on the outside of the body.
Irritation From Braces Or Other Orthodontic Devices
Especially if you are new to braces, having a foreign object in your mouth can be uncomfortable. The wires and brackets can press against the soft tissues, irritating them and causing a sore to form.
If you have just gotten braces fitted, this is normal—since your mouth isn't used to the wires and brackets constantly scratching against the insides of your lips and cheeks. With time, your mouth will get used to the device, and the soreness will subside.
Brushing Your Teeth Too Hard, Or Using A Hard-Bristled Toothbrush
Over time, this can cause receding gums, exposed roots, and—more immediately—sores. If you don't seem to have any other dental problems, pay attention to how much pressure you put on your gums and teeth when brushing.
Using Tobacco And Vape Products
Whether you smoke or chew tobacco, your risk of mouth cancer, gum disease, and other mouth infections increases. In addition to these more serious issues, tobacco use leads to mouth sores and oral lesions in the short term.
Those who vape aren't off the hook, either. Vaping has serious implications for your oral health, even though there is no tobacco. The chemicals, flavorings, and nicotine in vape juice can all cause irritation and mouth sores.
Hormones are responsible for just about everything in your body—including the health of your mouth. For example, during pregnancy, hormonal changes can cause a condition called “pregnancy gingivitis” which causes the gums to become swollen and irritated.
Other hormonal changes that can cause mouth sores include:
- Menopause, menstruation, birth control, and other feminine health changes
- Testosterone levels during puberty in men
- Medications and allergies
Certain medications—particularly those taken for an extended period of time—can provoke mouth sores. For example, steroids, antibiotics, and arthritis medications can all cause dryness and irritation that leads to these small white lesions.
Certain foods can also cause mouth sores or aggravate sensitive areas. Cinnamon flavoring, acidic foods like oranges, and foods high in sugar or salt can all irritate the lips or tongue.
Stress and oral health have a deep relationship. When you're stressed out, your body's natural immune defenses can be weakened and make your mouth more susceptible to sores.
And if you're one of the 37% of adults who "can't bring themselves to do anything" when they are stressed, small but important habits like brushing your teeth, eating healthy, and exercising are usually the first to go.
Burning Your Mouth On Hot Food Or Drinks
If you've ever unknowingly taken a sip of hot coffee or bitten into a piping hot slice of pizza, you know exactly what we're talking about.
Burning your mouth on hot food or drinks can cause sores that take days to heal and feel tender for weeks afterward.
This is, to some degree, an unavoidable problem. But if this seems to happen to you a lot, try to be more mindful when eating—take a bite from the back of your fork or spoon first to test if it's too hot. And wait a few seconds before taking a sip of a hot drink.
Exposure To The Herpes Simplex Virus
Herpes simplex virus is prevalent in two forms: oral herpes (HSV-1) and genital herpes (HSV-2). HSV-1 is more common and it can cause cold sores around the lips, nose, chin, and cheeks.
These sores are highly contagious and can spread to other parts of the body through contact with saliva or skin-to-skin contact.
In the case of HSV-1, you probably already have it. Whether or not you show symptoms (i.e., cold sores) depends on many factors, like your immune system, the environment, and luck.
HSV-2 is usually spread through sexual contact. It is almost always the form of the virus responsible for genital herpes.
Common Types Of Mouth Sores
Depending on where they are located and what they look like, mouth sores can mean different things. Let's take a look at common types of mouth sores and what they mean.
Canker sores are the most common type of mouth sore, affecting around 20% of people. They usually appear on the inner cheeks, tongue, or lips as a small white or yellow circle with a red border.
Sometimes, canker sores can pop up seemingly randomly. However, there are some things that can induce them:
- Certain types of food, such as coffee, chocolate, and acidic fruits
- Vitamin B-12, zinc, or folate deficiency
- Minor trauma to the mouth area
Canker sores are not contagious and usually go away within 7-10 days without treatment.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus and most commonly appear on or around the lips. They are very contagious and can spread to other parts of the body through contact with saliva or skin-to-skin contact.
Those who frequently share drinks, food, or other items with others are more likely to have this virus, as are those with a weakened immune system.
Cold sores get their name (and their alternative name, "fever blisters") because illness is one of the most common reasons for an outbreak. Other causes include stress, fatigue, and exposure to the sun.
Candidiasis (Oral Thrush)
Oral thrush is a type of yeast infection known as Candidiasis. It usually affects those who have weakened immune systems—like people with HIV or cancer—but can also affect infants, the elderly, and people who take certain medications.
Oral thrush appears as creamy white lesions on the tongue and inner cheeks and can cause numbness in the mouth or a burning sensation. It is not contagious and can be treated with antifungal medication.
Oral Lichen Planus
Oral lichen planus is a chronic, inflammatory condition in which the body's cells attack the mucous membranes of the mouth and gums. It appears as white patches on the inside of the cheeks or tongue and can cause pain, burning sensations, and difficulty eating.
The exact cause of oral lichen planus is unknown, but it may be linked to stress, allergies, or genetics. Treatment includes topical and oral corticosteroids and/or antifungal medications.
Leukoplakia is much less common than other causes of sores in the mouth. It is also far more serious, as it is one of the only sores that can potentially be cancerous.
Leukoplakia appears as a white or gray patch on the inside of the cheeks, lips, or tongue. It is caused by irritation from smoking, chewing tobacco, drinking alcohol heavily, and chronic dry mouth.
Getting leukoplakia checked out immediately is critical, as it can be a warning sign of cancer.
Oral cancer is a serious condition that can be life-threatening if not treated. It is far less common than other causes of mouth sores but certainly should not be ignored.
Oral cancer appears as a sore or lump in the mouth that does not heal or reduce in size. It may cause pain, numbness, or difficulty swallowing, or it may cause no symptoms at all.
Treatment for oral cancer depends on the stage and location of the cancer, but often includes radiation and/or chemotherapy in addition to surgery.
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical help right away.
What Are The Symptoms Of Mouth Sores?
Depending on the type of mouth sore and its location, symptoms can vary. Generally, common signs of mouth sores include pain, burning sensations, difficulty eating or speaking, and visible lesions in the mouth.
Redness And Pain
Redness is a common symptom of aggravation, no matter where in the body it is. In the mouth, redness often appears around the sore and can cause pain or discomfort. If you have a mouth rash, this redness will span a larger area than a small sore.
Pain commonly follows this, ranging from a dull ache to a sharp sting or burning sensation. This can make activities like eating and talking uncomfortable.
If your sore is in a particularly sensitive or high-contact area like the roof of your mouth underneath your tongue, behind your back teeth along your jaw closure, or at the edge of your lip on your mouth closure, your sore will be much more noticeable.
Burning Or Tingling Sensation
Aside from pain, another common symptom of a mouth sore is a burning or tingling sensation. This happens when the nerves in your mouth are aggravated and can be felt even without direct contact with the sore.
A burning or tingling sensation may also be accompanied by redness and pain, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish between these three symptoms.
Difficulty Eating And Talking
Like many oral health problems, difficulty eating and talking are potential symptoms of mouth sores. The sore may make moving your mouth or tongue difficult, causing you to slur words or mess up while chewing.
If the sore is large enough, eating certain foods may also be uncomfortable or even painful. In severe cases, you may have trouble opening your mouth wide enough to eat anything large.
How To Get Rid Of Mouth Sores
If you have a mouth sore, the good news is that there are several ways you can manage the pain and speed up the healing process.
Here are a few tips for getting rid of painful mouth sores:
Avoid The Wrong Types Of Foods.
Many of the same foods that can damage your teeth can damage other parts of your mouth or aggravate existing sores.
Avoid the following foods to minimize pain around a mouth sore:
- Hot or spicy foods like chilies, peppers, and hot sauces
- Salty foods such as chips, crackers, pretzels, and salted nuts
- Sharp and crunchy snacks like tortilla chips, toast, and popcorn
- Citrus fruits and juices like oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits
- High-sugar items like candy, chocolate, and other sugary treats
- Vinegar-based dressings and sauces
Soft, bland foods like yogurt and cream soup will be the best when it comes to pain management. But if you prefer to eat solid foods as well (which most of us do) try mashed potatoes, oatmeal, eggs, avocado toast (lightly toasted or untoasted), and bananas.
Stay Away From Tobacco And Alcohol.
Tobacco products are the worst for your oral health. And if you have a mouth sore, they will impede the healing process and worsen your discomfort.
Acidic cocktails, carbonated drinks like hard seltzer and beer, tannic beverages like wine, and strong liquors like whisky will probably all worsen the pain, but those will less critical conditions may find it tolerable.
Alcohol, when consumed in any amount, is dehydrating and makes your mouth dry out quicker than usual. This makes it harder for your body to heal itself naturally.
In the case of excessive drinking (which could very well have caused the problem), your condition could heal much slower or worsen.
Gargle With Salt Water.
Salt water gargling works by helping to reduce inflammation and improving blood circulation around your mouth sore.
The salt is absorbed through the mucous membranes in the mouth, providing an analgesic action that relieves pain that the sore causes. Salt water also helps cleanse away bacteria that may be causing or worsening a sore.
Salt encourages cell growth and helps to promote the healing of sores in the throat or on the tongue. Salt water gargling has been used for centuries as a simple remedy for many ailments, including mouth sores. It is easy to try at home with just a glass of warm water and some table salt. This natural remedy can help relieve discomfort while also promoting faster healing of mouth sores.
Eat Cold Foods To Soothe The Area.
The same way ice packs are used to reduce swelling and pain in other parts of the body, cold can help numb soreness in your mouth. Ice helps to reduce inflammation and provides a cooling sensation that can temporarily relieve the pain caused by a mouth sore.
Ice pops, sherbet, sorbets, and other frozen treats can provide relief for more than just the taste buds—they can help soothe inflamed tissues in the mouth and give temporary relief from pain.
Since cold foods are usually ice-based, cold foods are also slightly hydrating, which is beneficial for healing your sore faster.
Take Pain Medication.
Pain medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen can be helpful if your mouth sore is especially painful. Talk to your doctor before taking any medication and make sure you follow the instructions on the package carefully.
If over-the-counter medications are not providing adequate relief, a prescription topical anesthetic can help numb the area around the sore and provide fast relief from pain.
Don't Squeeze Or Pick At The Sores Or Blisters.
You should never pop blisters or squeeze sores in your mouth. Squeezing the sore can lead to further inflammation, increased pain and discomfort, and even a risk of infection.
You also shouldn't scratch or pick at the area as this could cause further irritation and delay healing time. If you feel an urge to pick at your sores, finding a distraction can be difficult, but it's the best way to ensure that your sores will heal quickly and properly.
Apply A Thin Paste Of Baking Soda And Water.
Baking soda has been shown to be an effective method for treating mouth sores. Make a paste of baking soda and water, then apply it to the sore area.
Baking soda is considered to be soothing, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic—all qualities which can help reduce the pain associated with a mouth sore and speed up the healing process. Baking soda paste can be used as often as needed for relief.
Mouth sores can be painful and annoying, but there are plenty of ways to alleviate discomfort and help the healing process. Salt water gargling, eating cold foods, taking over-the-counter pain medications, avoiding picking or squeezing at the sore, and applying a paste of baking soda and water are all methods that can be used to find relief from painful mouth sores.
If your sores grow, spread, or fail to go away, it is important to seek medical treatment from your doctor. With the right treatment and preventative measures, mouth sores can be easily managed.
Want to learn more? Here are the questions our customers ask us the most.
How Do Mouth Sores Spread?
The kind of mouth sore you have will affect whether you can spread it to others. Canker sores are not contagious, but herpes simplex virus (HSV), which causes cold sores, is highly contagious. HSV is typically passed through direct contact with saliva or skin-to-skin contact.
Are Mouth Sores Bacterial Or Viral?
While viruses are the primary factors behind mouth sores, bacteria can cause them as well. For instance, cold sores are caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2) while some forms of gingivostomatitis (i.e., mouth sores) could stem from particular bacterial agents like streptococcus and actinomyces.
How Are Mouth Sores Diagnosed?
Most of the time, mouth sores are the result of cancer sores in the mouth, which don't require a diagnosis. However, if you experience severe or recurrent mouth sores, a doctor may perform a biopsy to determine the cause. A physical examination and medical history can also help diagnose the condition.
Should I See A Doctor Or Dentist For Mouth Sores?
If your mouth sore is small and white (i.e., a canker sore), seeing a doctor isn't necessary. But other kinds of sores—like leukoplakia and oral thrush—require immediate medical attention. If the sore persists or worsens, it is best to consult a doctor or dentist for diagnosis and treatment.
In addition, symptoms like fever, chills, difficulty swallowing, swollen lymph nodes, and excessive drooling can be signs of a serious medical issue that requires evaluation by a healthcare professional.
How Do I Know If I Have A Mouth Infection?
If you have a mouth infection, you will usually notice symptoms like pain or difficulty when swallowing, fever, swollen lymph nodes, white spots on the gums or tonsils, and swollen facial areas. If you experience any of these symptoms for more than three days, you should to seek medical attention from your doctor or dentist. And if your symptoms are more severe, such as difficulty breathing or white coverage of your tongue, you should definitely visit the doctor.
How Do You Heal A Sore In Your Mouth?
Most sores are cold sores and canker sores, which heal on their own. But if you have oral thrush, oral lichen planus, or any other serious condition, you should seek medical advice. To speed up the healing process, try avoiding acidic foods and drinks, using a cold compress to reduce swelling, and applying a paste of baking soda and water to the sore area for relief.
What Should I Eat When I Have A Mouth Sore?
Soft and cold foods are generally recommended for people suffering from mouth sores. Examples of safe foods include oatmeal, mashed potatoes, plain yogurt, applesauce, cottage cheese, smoothies, soups (especially those with broth), scrambled eggs or hard-boiled eggs without the shells, grilled fish or chicken without any spices or condiments, and cooked vegetables. You should also avoid acidic foods, such as oranges and other citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, and vinegar-based dressings.
What Can I Expect If I Have Mouth Sores?
If you find yourself with a mouth sore, you can expect to experience pain, swelling, and a burning or tingling sensation in the affected area. In some cases, the sore may also be accompanied by fever, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty swallowing, and excessive drooling. Depending on the type of mouth sore you have, they can last anywhere from 7 to 10 days. If your mouth sore is the result of oral thrush, leukoplakia, or another serious condition, it could take longer to heal.
Who Do Mouth Sores Affect?
In some form, mouth sores affect almost everyone at some point in their lives. However, certain individuals may be more prone to getting mouth sores due to underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS, weakened immune systems, vitamin deficiencies, dental braces, and reactions to stress. Taking certain medications can also increase the risk of developing mouth sores.
Are Mouth Sores Contagious?
Some mouth sores are contagious, while others aren't. Cold sores, which are caused by the herpes virus, are highly contagious and can be spread through direct contact with an infected person or from sharing eating utensils or cups. Canker sores, on the other hand, aren't contagious and typically only affect one person.
How Long Do Mouth Sores Last?
The duration of a mouth sore varies depending on the type and cause. Most minor sores, like cold sores or canker sores, usually heal within 7 to 10 days without any special treatment. If you have a serious condition such as oral thrush or leukoplakia, it may take two weeks or longer for your mouth sore to heal.
How Do You Treat Mouth Sores From Vaping?
Believe it or not, vaping can cause mouth sores. To treat these sores, your first step should be to stop vaping altogether. For the actual sore, drink lots of water and avoid acidic foods and drinks. If the pain persists, you may need to investigate the sore further to rule out any underlying medical conditions.