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Do I Have a Canker Sore or Cold Sore? What's the Difference?


Woman with cold sore touching lips

It’s caused by stress, results in a painful sore in or near your mouth, makes eating difficult, and can ruin a romantic moment. Can you name that oral health problem?

If you said “cold sore” or “canker sore,” then you’d be right.

But despite sharing a few characteristics, cold sores and canker sores are actually two very different kinds of ailments. Understanding the differences can help you properly treat and even prevent the next oral sore that sneaks up on you.

What Are Canker Sores?

Canker sores are also called aphthous ulcers. These are shallow round lesions that form on soft areas inside the mouth. They often have a bright red ring that surrounds a pale gray or yellow patch of tissue.

These open lesions can show up on the inside of lips and cheeks, the loose tissue at the base of the gums, on the soft tissue of the throat and palate, and on the tongue. Canker sores only grow inside the mouth.

What causes a canker sore?

There are a few commonly-known triggers that can cause an aphthous ulcer to appear:

  • Stress

  • Injury to tissue (accidentally biting your lip, cheek, or tongue)

  • Hormone changes

  • Reaction to acidic or spicy foods

  • Allergic response to sodium lauryl sulfate (foaming ingredient in toothpaste)

  • Vitamin deficiency

What Are Cold Sores?

Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are lesions that form on the outside of the mouth due to a viral infection. They tend to grow at the edge of the lips.

The important thing you should know about cold sores is that because they are caused by a virus they are highly contagious. You can spread and share the virus even when there isn’t a visible sore present.

Once you’re infected with the virus (which is a very common one, by the way), it can flare up by causing those painful lesions around your mouth. They start out as a cluster of painful pimple-like blisters which eventually rupture and form a crust. While cold sores do usually heal on their own after the infection runs its course, it can take as long as a month for the wound to clear up.

Cold sores often show up in the same place every time they flare up and are often preceded by a tingling or burning sensation.

Treating and Preventing Canker Sores

Do you tend to get canker sores a lot? You might be able to avoid the discomfort by keeping a record of things you ate and experienced in the week or so leading up to the sore’s appearance. If you notice a pattern, you can identify your potential triggers.

Switch to a gentle toothbrush that won’t aggravate your gums and an SLS-free toothpaste. Avoid acidic and spicy foods, especially while you have a sore that’s healing.

Rinse with a warm salt water solution several times a day to cleanse the lesion and bring down inflammation. If your mouth still hurts, you can try some over-the-counter topical numbing jelly.

If you have a canker sore that’s unusually large or so painful that you have difficulty swallowing, then you should go see a dentist right away.

A canker sore should heal on its own within a week or two. You also don’t have to worry about sharing it with anyone since aphthous ulcers are not contagious.

Treating and Preventing Cold Sores

Cold sores are often triggered by a stressed or weakened immune system. They aren’t directly caused by catching a common cold, but the stress on your body from any illness can make you prone to a flare up.

You may be able to prevent a cold sore by getting plenty of rest when you’re unwell or overtired. Avoid exposure to extreme elements like direct sunlight or freezing winds since these can also trigger a cold sore. Wear plenty of sunscreen on your face and SPF-containing lip balm before going outdoors.

Cold sores are most contagious during the phase when they’re oozing. Avoid passing on the virus to others at this time by not sharing toothbrushes, cosmetics, or food items. Kissing is a very popular means of transmitting the cold sore virus!

Picking up a prescription antiviral medication from a dentist or doctor might help a cold sore heal faster.

Professional Treatment for Cold Sores and Canker Sores

Do you have a very painful or persistent cold sore or canker sore that won’t go away? Large lesions and especially ones accompanied by symptoms like fever or eye pain merit the attention of a medical professional.

For a Tacoma general dentist who can treat cold sores and canker sores, look no further than Duke N. Bui, DDS, PS - Family Dentistry.

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