Sores or ulcers in the mouth can be painful, making it hard to talk, drink or eat without discomfort. These ulcers may be caused by infections, medications, injury or irritants, and may last a few days to a few weeks. They may even persist longer if related to a drug, ongoing irritant or untreated bacterial infection. If you have a mouth ulcer, there are steps you can take at home to improve your symptoms and enhance healing.
Step 1: Treat the Cause
Mouth ulcers related to canker sores or viral infections, such as cold sores from the herpes simplex virus, tend to go away on their own without treatment. However, ulcers connected to a medication, bacterial infection or ongoing irritant will heal when the cause is removed or the underlying condition is treated. If you suspect your ulcer is related to something other than a canker sore or cold sore -- such as irritation from dental appliances or a side effect of chemotherapy -- talk to your doctor or dentist about management options.
Step 2: Avoid Irritants
If you have one or more mouth ulcers, your pain can worsen when you eat or drink. Foods that are salty, spicy or sugary may cause more pain, as can acidic foods such as citrus juice or hard, crusty bread, chips or pretzels. Try bland, soft and moist foods instead. Use a soft-bristle toothbrush and clean teeth slowly to avoid touching the ulcer with the bristles. Avoid traditional mouthwashes, as these may contain alcohol or other irritants.
Step 3: Soothe and Promote Healing
Rinse your mouth with a solution of 1 teaspoon salt and 2 cups of water to help soothe mouth ulcers and improve ulcer healing. If your ulcers are related to chemotherapy or radiation therapy, the American Cancer Society recommends gently rinsing your mouth before and after meals with a solution of 2 cups water and 1 teaspoon baking soda, or 4 cups water mixed with 1 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda. Your doctor may also prescribe rinses for canker sores or drug-induced ulcers to lessen pain and enhance healing.
Step 4: Manage the Pain
Although mouth ulcers can take 1 to 2 weeks to completely heal, there are strategies that can help minimize ulcer-related pain. For immediate relief, wrap an ice cube in a paper towel and hold it over the sore. Alternately, use over-the-counter (OTC) gels that numb and coat the sore to ease pain and avoid irritation from foods or beverages. If your mouth sores are very painful or if you suffer from repeated sores, your doctor can recommend a prescription rinse or topical medication. Oral pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also be recommended.
Things You'll Need
Your doctor's phone number
Salt or baking soda
Ice cube and paper towel
OTC gels to relieve mouth ulcers or canker sores
OTC pain relievers, optional
Drinking liquids through a straw may help lessen pain, if it helps bypass the sores in your mouth. Cool liquids may be less irritating than hot beverages.
Sores that do not heal should be evaluated. If your mouth ulcer lasts for more than 10 days, see your doctor or dentist. If you have recurrent mouth sores, or if you think your mouth ulcers are related to an infection, medication or illness, see your doctor.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD