What Is the Difference between Mouth Sores and Canker Sores?

A.E. Simmons

In most cases, the term “mouth sore” and “canker sore” refer to exactly the same thing, and as such the difference is usually only in usage. Oral health experts generally acknowlege that the terms are interchangeable when used to relate to painful spots or bumps inside a person’s mouth. The bumps by any name are usually caused by irritation, sometimes from highly acidic foods but sometimes also from accidentally biting the inside of the mouth. Stress can also be a cause, and the sores can be a side effect of certain medications and medical conditions, as well. Most of the time they will go away on their own with time, and usually stop being painful a day or so after they develop. There is usually a difference when it comes to sores that are on the outside of the mouth. These are usually known as cold sores; cold sores are usually caused by a virus and as such are often contagious, which is not a concern with ordinary mouth or canker sores. Doctors and dentists sometimes prescribe medication to help relieve cold sores, as well. Treatment isn’t usually required for canker sores.

A cold sore.
A cold sore.

Basic Characteristics and Symptoms

Sores on the inside of the mouth are usually thought of as small ulcers, or pockets of tissue that form in response to some sort of irritation. For most people, the mouth is a place that comes into contact with all sorts of substances through food, drink, and regular air intake; as a moist environment, it’s also a haven for all sorts of bacteria. Under ideal circumstances, these attributes all work together. When things go wrong or imbalances happen, though, sores and irritations sometimes develop, usually along the insides of the cheeks or at the gum line.

A human mouth.
A human mouth.

Symptoms of mouth sores and canker sores include painful gums and sores on the tongue, soft palate, or inside the cheeks. If the mouth sores are indicators of a more serious health condition, one may suffer from a fever, swollen lymph nodes, or fatigue. These symptoms may be relieved with an antimicrobial mouth rinse, ointment, or a prescription. When it comes to prevention, most experts recommend that people avoid eating highly acidic foods and maintain good, regular dental hygiene.

Main Causes

These sorts of inner-mouth sores can be caused by a couple of different things, and some people are more prone to developing them than others. In most cases, stress and the consumption of highly acidic foods are the most common culprits. Lemons and fresh pineapple are some foods often blamed; raw tomatoes and spicy peppers can also be aggravating factors. Certain medications, including chemotherapy, certain arthritis, medication and some sleep aids list canker sores as known side effects, as well.

Reasons to be Concerned

Most of the time, mouth and canker sores shouldn’t be any cause for alarm. They will usually go away all on their own, and treatment is rarely required. There are some situations which may warrant more investigation, though. Chronic sores can be indicators of more serious health conditions, including cancer and non-herpes infections. Recurrent mouth sores and canker sores are sometimes also caused by a deficiency of various vitamins, such as iron and zinc. They may also suggest Crohn’s disease or a gastrointestinal tract condition.

Differentiating Cold Sores

Cold sores, sometimes also called fever blisters, are often lumped with mouth and canker sores in casual conversation, though the two are very different in a couple of important respects. Location is one of the first distinguishing features, as cold sores occur most often outside of the mouth, often on the lips or just beside the lips. They’re normally caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). If there is an open wound, HSV can enter through the break in the skin. There also may be tingling or burning in the mouth as a warning of sorts when an outbreak is just starting.

Eating acidic foods, such as fresh pineapple, can cause canker sores.
Eating acidic foods, such as fresh pineapple, can cause canker sores.

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