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A guide to Canker Sores

At one time or another, we’ve probably all suffered from canker sores. They are one of those irritants that seem to come from nowhere and make life a misery for a short period of time. They make it difficult and painful to eat and drink certain foods, especially acidic or salty foods. It’s easy enough to forget that they are there (or to have them creep up during the night while you are unawares), only to get a short, sharp and painful reminder when you try to eat something.

But what can you do about them? If you suffer from canker sores – and research suggests that around one in twenty of us do regularly – then you have probably searched high and low for a remedy or even just something to soothe the pain. Canker sores can be quite worrying for many people too. What causes them? And are they a symptom or indication of a more serious, underlying health issue?

Unfortunately, neither your doctor nor your dentist will be able to tell you what causes canker sores – because nobody really knows. However, we probably all recognise them only too well. They are those shallow, angry red sores that appear on the inside of your cheeks, on your gums and on the underside of your tongue. They are those sores that, once they appear, seem to regularly catch on your teeth while you are talking or eating, becoming even more irritable and even more painful. After a couple of days, they will normally disappear.

So surely, you must be thinking, someone can make an educated guess about what causes canker sores? There is plenty of speculation around. Some experts suggest that they are triggered by stress. Others focus more on aspects of diets, suggesting that the sores are more due to poor nutrition or food allergies. There is also some evidence to show that women and younger adults suffer the most, which suggests that they could be caused by certain hormonal activity.

What we do know for a fact is that canker sores are not caused by an infection and they are not contagious. So they are not transferred from person to person by kissing, by sneezing, by talking, by using restaurant cutlery or by drinking from pub glasses. Cold sores, on the other hand, can be ‘caught’ from somebody else. The difference is that they appear on the outside of the lip, whereas canker sores appear on the inside of the mouth.

Now that we know exactly what canker sores are, what can we do about them? Well, the bad news is that you can’t stop them, so there are no preventative measures you can take. And the really bad news is that, once you’ve got them, there is not much you can do to get rid of them (except be patient). Therefore, when it comes to treatment for canker sores, the emphasis is usually on trying to reduce the pain and discomfort, while you wait for them to go away of their own accord.

Straightforward painkillers will help to soothe the pain. Something like Ibruprofen or Nurofen. Alternatively, there are a number of over-the-counter balms that you can apply directly to the sore itself. A mouthwash may also help – although make sure you don’t use one that contains alcohol as this may cause the pain to flare. Ask your doctor what they would recommend.

It is also a good idea to monitor what you eat and drink. You may find that your canker sores are more sensitive to certain types of food or drink, such as spicy foods or hot drinks. If you learn what makes the painful area flare up, you can avoid those types of food for a day or so while the canker sores become less irritable.

The final question we need to ask is should you be worried about canker sores? The sores themselves usually disappear of their own accord without requiring treatment. And while they cause pain and discomfort, there is not usually any sign that they cause any long-term damage to your gums, tongue or mouth.

If you find the canker sores are appearing regularly – more than three times in a year - then you should consult your doctor.

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