According to Medline Plus, women develop canker sores more often than men, and they typically strike first when the sufferer is between 10 and 40 years of age. Benign canker sores are different than fever blisters, which are contagious blisters, and cold sores caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1.
Canker sores -- also called mouth ulcers, aphthous stomatitis, aphthae or ulcerative stomatitis -- affect the gumline, soft palate, tongue, soft palate, and inner lips and cheeks. Medline Plus describes the sores as white or yellow surrounded by a red area and says that they can be quite painful. Canker sores are usually under 1cm in diameter but can sometimes be larger. They appear as a single sore or in a group of sores called a crop. The sores often recur, but not usually in the same location, which is the case with fever blisters.
Canker sores appear for many reasons, but sometimes they have no apparent or detectable cause, says Medline Plus. Health 911 lists some of the causes for canker sores as stress, some foods -- especially citrus juice and fruit -- allergies, injury from brushing too hard or biting down on a sharp piece of food, dental work, acidity in the stomach, celiac disease and deficiencies of nutrients such as B12, folic acid, iron and zinc. Medline Plus describes additional causes as a family history of canker sores, problems with the immune system, hormonal changes and menstrual periods.
When canker sores are just beginning, the sufferer usually feels a burning, tingling sensation in the area where the sore will appear, says Medline Plus. Soon, the tingling area swells into a red bump, which develops into the open ulcer characteristic of the canker sore. Along with the canker sores, some people may experience swollen lymph nodes, fever and even a general feeling of uneasiness. The healing time is typically one to three weeks, but larger sores may take up to four weeks to completely heal.
Treatment With Salt
Some remedies using salt have been suggested as helping reduce the severity and pain and speeding healing of canker sores. Health 911 suggests gargling with 1 tsp. soda and a pinch of salt dissolved in 1 cup of warm water. Gargle with this solution at the first sign of the canker sore. Another treatment using salt requires 2 tbsp. of salt dissolved in 6 oz. of warm water. Rinse the mouth with this solution three to four times a day to draw fluid out of the sore, helping it heal. A third suggestion from Health 911 requires 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. goldenseal powder and 1 cup warm water. Rinse the mouth several times a day. A pinch of powdered goldenseal applied to the sore may help as well. A British study, according to SaveYourSmile, found that people suffering from canker sores often said that salt-water rinses, among several treatment options, were the least effective. However, because some people experience a benefit from the salt-water rinse -- and the treatment is inexpensive -- it is worth a try. SaveYourSmile recommends mixing 1 tsp. salt with a cup of warm water, swishing it around the mouth for a minute and then spitting it out. Medline Plus recommends rinsing the mouth with salt water or a mild mouthwash.
USA Today's Health Encyclopedia -- Diseases and Conditions reiterates the benefit some receive from salt-water rinses but also describes several other treatments. Xylocaine applied to the sore can numb the pain of a single sore, and anti-inflammatory steroid mouthwash or gel is more effective for those with several sores. While cimetidine, also known as the heartburn medication Tagamet, is not approved specifically for canker sores, some patients have found that it helps treat their canker sores. A few other treatments reported by Health Encyclopedia are avoiding irritating food, putting ice on the canker sore and rinsing the mouth with elixir of Benadryl or diluted hydrogen peroxide, both of which are available over the counter.