Canker Sores

What are Canker Sores?

Canker sores are a common problem for up to 40% of the population. They are painful sore spots that occur on the lining of the mouth. The medical name for canker sores is aphthous ulcers (or aphthous stomatitis).

Picture shows typical appearance of a canker sore.

Canker sores are more common in children and young adults and usually resolve between the ages of 20-40. About 80% of people have minor aphthous ulcers, which are usually relatively small (5 mm or less in diameter) and last 7-10 days. Minor aphthous ulcers usually recur every 1-4 months. 20% of people will have major aphthous ulcers, a more severe form of the disease. These ulcers are larger (1 cm or more in diameter), more painful, and last longer (up to a month or more). They also can recur much sooner and patients can have ulcers most of the time.

The underlying reason for aphthous ulcers is not well understood. It may be related to a problem with the immune system function. Sometimes trauma to the inside of the mouth such as a bite or scratch can trigger aphthous ulcers.

Diagnosis: There are no specific tests for canker sores. Sometimes it is necessary to test for other diseases that can cause similar sores in the mouth. Usually, the diagnosis is self evident based on the history and physical exam.

Treatment: Many minor aphthous ulcers do not require treatment. For more severe ulcers that cause significant pain and discomfort, steroid pastes can help with pain and sometimes shorten the duration of the ulcer. Steroid pastes have not been shown to reduce recurrence of the ulcers in the future.

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