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Why Do We Get Those Pesky, Painful Mouth Ulcers?

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Aug 20, 2020

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Image Credit: Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle/Getty

The pesky, painful mouth ulcers we develop occasionally get in the way of talking, eating, and even brushing our teeth. But, what are these mouth lesions and why do we get them?

Mouth ulcers are, basically, categorized as: minor, major, and herpetiform. While the minor ones heal within a couple of weeks, and don’t, typically, leave scars, the major ones penetrate deeper into the tissue, can take several weeks to heal, and often, leave scar tissue when they clear. But, the herpetiform ulcers, named thus because they resemble sores caused by herpes, occur in clusters, aren’t contagious, and recur very often — even though they heal quickly.

Experts believe that mouth ulcers are commonly a result of local trauma, which can be caused by minor mouth injuries from dental work, accidental bites, eating sharp or piping hot foods, or even from citric, or acidic, fruits and vegetables that can cause irritation and injury to the mucous membranes inside our mouth.

Some people also suffer from aphthous stomatitis, a condition characterized by recurrent mouth ulcers. When mouth ulcers result from this condition, they are known as canker sores. On the one hand, this condition is considered incurable, but on the other, it is neither associated with any symptoms other than the recurring canker sores, nor is it believed to cause any “serious harm to your long-term health.” The reasons for aphthous stomatitis remain largely unknown, but experts have hypothesized a set of causes.


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A deficiency of vitamin B-12, which can be treated with supplements, is often blamed for canker sores; as are deficiencies of folic acid, zinc, or iron in the body. Some experts also blame toothpastes containing the compound, sodium lauryl sulfate for canker sores. Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, particularly progesterone spikes, can lead to canker sores too. Stress, or lack of sleep, too, is blamed for these painful lesions due to dips in immunity. These sores can be genetic too — NHS says that around 40 percent of people who keep getting these recurring mouth ulcers report that it runs in their family.

Although mouth ulcers tend to clear up on their own, and typically recur throughout a person’s life, experts strongly suggest seeking medical attention in the following scenarios: if the mouth ulcers last longer than three weeks, are more than three in number at any given time, are particularly painful or big, accompanied by a fever, develop after starting a new medication, or if non-painful ulcers crop up in different areas of one’s mouth.

In those extreme cases it’s important to seek treatment because the seemingly harmless mouth ulcers can also be a sign of underlying health concerns such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes mellitus, Behcet’s disease, and HIV/AIDS. And sometimes, albeit rarely, mouth ulcers that refuse to heal could also be a sign of mouth cancer — risk factors for which, include smoking, or consumption of tobacco in other forms, drinking alcohol, and HPV infections.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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