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Sep 30, 2020
Girl with mouth ulcer

Mouth Ulcers: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention Methods

Mouth ulcers are not uncommon, but they can be very unpleasant. Many people experience this issue at some point in their lives, and although it causes a lot of nuisance, in most cases, it’s rather innocent. But in some instances, ulcers in your mouth can point to larger oral health problems that you will want to address.

This post will help you understand the difference between types of mouth ulcers, why they occur, how to prevent them, and how to treat them.

What Are Mouth Ulcers?

Mouth ulcers are painful sores that appear inside the mouth - this can be on the tongue, gums, roof of the mouth, inner cheeks or inner lips. They tend to be round or oval in shape, and white, yellow or gray in color with a swollen redness surrounding. In many cases these ulcers protrude slightly, so you can feel them by running your tongue or finger over the affected area (this also makes mouth ulcers entirely too easy to bite down on while chewing. Ouch!).

There are different types of mouth ulcers, which is in fact a more broad term. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the distinctions.

Different Types of Oral Sores

Mouth ulcers is a general term for sores on the oral mucosa, the soft layer that covers the inside of your mouth. The two most common types of mouth ulcers include:

  • Aphthous ulcers: Small lesions that appear inside your mouth. Aphthous ulcers are non-contagious but can sometimes make it difficult to chew, talk and swallow.
  • Traumatic Ulcers: The oral mucosa is a sensitive tissue that is easily damaged, for example by heat or cold, accidental biting, rubbing against sharp edges, eating hard or sharp-edged food, or even by chemical or irradiation stimuli. Injuries like these are called traumatic ulcers.

There are also several more serious conditions, such as gingivostomatitis and oral thrush, but they mainly affect (young) children. Instead, we will focus on the first category, aphthous ulcers. So let’s take a look at why they happen, and how you can best prevent them.

Pain caused by mouth ulcers

What Causes Aphthous Ulcers?

As we mentioned before, the inside of your mouth has a protective top layer – the oral mucosa – which is impacted or damaged in the instance of aphthae, leaving nerve cells exposed. Once exposed, these nerve endings can be further irritated by food, drinks, saliva, and even contact with the air.

Even though many people are affected by aphthous ulcers, not much is known about the exact causes. However, experts have suggested some predisposing factors:

  • Genetics. In many cases, people suffering from recurrent aphthous ulcers have (close) relatives who have the same issue.
  • Physical damage to the mouth and oral tissue. Perhaps you bit down on your inner cheek too hard, or drank something too hot. This type of damage is also frequently caused by dental appliances and orthodontic devices. For example, someone adjusting to new braces will likely have a heightened risk of aphthous ulcers.
  • Stress can contribute to aphthous ulcers. This is true for so many health conditions. When people are dealing with high levels of mental stress they tend to be more susceptible to numerous issues and evidence suggests aphthous ulcers are among them.
  • Hormonal changes, immune dysfunction, nutritional deficiencies (such as vitamins, iron or folic acid), and allergic reactions are also believed to contribute.
  • Systemic factors. Diseases such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis or HIV can be predisposing. We will discuss this in more detail below.

Since experts don’t know precisely what causes aphthous ulcers, generally speaking, there is no surefire way to prevent them. But there are daily habits and routines we can implement to lessen their likelihood.

How to Prevent Aphthous Ulcers

Unfortunately, preventing aphthous ulcers is very challenging. When there is a clear single factor that is causing them to develop, it is possible to pinpoint and address that issue, but this is not often the case. Still, it’s worth monitoring potential links and sharing information with your dental care professional.

If you’re experiencing recurrent aphthae, the most important and valuable step you can take is paying attention to patterns and correlations in connection with the issue. You might even consider keeping a journal of what you consume. When you notice aphthous ulcers, can you tie them back to something you ate or drank? Is it possible you had a reaction to a drug? Are you missing out on one or more essential specific vitamins or nutrients in your diet?

With your oral care routine, you’ll want to pay attention to possible links with mouth ulcers, because it’s possible that certain dental products and activities might be contributors. Consider using gentle products (i.e., soft-bristle brushes) and ingredients

Care for your teeth and gums

How to Treat Aphthous Ulcers

Aphthous ulcers are a (literal) pain to deal with while present, so let’s explore some actions you can take to get immediate relief and speed up the healing.

The best treatment for aphthous ulcers is a product that adds a protective layer over the ulcer, preventing further exposure to things like air, food, and drinks that can irritate and inflame the wound.

GUM® offers a line of aphthous ulcer treatments under the GUM AftaClear® line that serve this very purpose. Depending on your preference, you can find:

As a general rule, it’s also advisable to avoid acidic or spicy foods and drinks when dealing with aphthous ulcers.

Mouth Ulcers: Implications for Oral and Overall Health

If you experience recurrent aphthous ulcers, you might wonder to yourself if it’s something to be concerned about. That’s reasonable. When especially severe or reoccurring, aphthous ulcers can be associated with more serious health issues, including inflammatory bowel diseases (e.g., Crohn’s disease), celiac disease, and immune system deficiencies.

If you notice that your aphthous ulcers are especially large, painful, frequent, or persistent, it’s advisable to ask your healthcare professional about it. Your dentist might be able to help with issues like sharp teeth or dental appliances, but more serious underlying conditions may require a doctor’s attention.

The bottom line, however, is that aphthous ulcers are very normal (an estimated 1 out of 5 people deals with them regularly). By and large, they aren’t especially worrisome even though they can be an irritating annoyance to deal with.

Practice good oral care, keep track of when they’re occurring, and proactively address mouth ulcers when they do occur. 

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