Do I have a cold sore or a canker sore?

Cold sores and canker sores are oral lesions that may look and maybe even feel similar, but they’re far from it. The biggest difference between the two is that canker sores only occur inside the mouth while cold sores can present on many different parts of the body. However, cold sores are most common on or around the nose, cheeks, or lips and also (in some rare occasions) inside the mouth or in the eye.

Apart from location you can also tell the difference between the two based on appearance. Cold sores are a group of blisters that first appear clear then become cloudy. Canker sores, on the other hand, can pop up alone or in clusters and normally a red inflamed area surrounds the gray or white sores.

Cold Sore and Canker Sore Symptoms

Nicknamed “fever blisters,” cold sores may have the word “cold” in the name but that’s where the similarities with the common cold end. The herpes simplex virus actually causes cold sores, which is why cold sores are also known as oral herpes. Unlike its counterpart, genital herpes, oral herpes isn’t sexually transmitted. You can get the herpes simplex virus from nonsexual contact with saliva during childhood or young adulthood. Once the virus is in you, it can trigger outbreaks of cold sores whenever you get too much exposure to hot sun, cold wind, or other illnesses such as a compromised immune system, changing hormone levels, or even stress. If you have a cold sore your symptoms may include:

  • Itching, burning, or prickling around the lips.
  • Small and painful fluid-filled blisters  around the mouth.
  • Clustering, enlarging, and bursting of the small blisters, creating shallow open mouth ulcers that ooze and later scab over.
  • Painful gums, fever, headaches, muscle aches, and/or a sore throat.

On the other hand, no one knows what really causes canker sores. Many say they’re also caused by a virus. Others think it’s a form of allergic reaction to something in your food, toothpaste, or mouthwash, or the result of the body developing an immune reaction against its own tissues. A few believe that eating acidic foods and citrus fruits increase the odds of getting these mouth ulcers. But none of these theories have been scientifically proven so far. What we do know, however, are the symptoms, including:

  • A tingling or burning sensation less than 24 hours before a sore in the mouth appears.
  • Round or oval mouth sores that are white, gray, or pale yellow in color and have a red inflamed border.
  • Painful sores that appear on the soft palate of the roof of the mouth, on the tongue, at the base of the gums, or the inside of the cheeks.

Cold Sore and Canker Sore Diagnosis

Tests aren’t needed to diagnose cold sores or canker sores. A doctor or a dentist can identify them based on your medical or dental history and through a visual exam alone. If your mouth ulcers are severe and ongoing, your doctor may choose to also do a blood test to find out if an underlying condition like vitamin deficiencies, allergic reactions, or an undiagnosed autoimmune disease is the reason for the recurring  sores.

Cold Sore and Canker Sore Treatments

Cold sores have no cure but they normally clear up by themselves without treatment within six to 10 days. If your sores are particularly painful, antiviral over-the-counter ointments, lip balms, and sunscreen can help relieve the symptoms as well as slow down the spread of the virus. These treatments are however more effective when applied as soon as the first symptom appears — when you feel the itching, burning, or tingling around your lips. If the sores don’t heal within two weeks or become worse as time passes, schedule an appointment with your doctor or dentist in Reading, MA.

Just like for cold sores, nothing cures canker sores. Cleansing antiseptic medication such as hydrogen peroxide can help ease discomfort, prevent reinfection, and promote healing. Applying a gel like benzocaine numbs the sores in the mouth and relieves the pain. Holding a wet tea bag over the canker sore, dabbing a small amount of milk of magnesia on the area a few times a day, or swishing an apple cider vinegar mouthwash around your mouth for a couple of minutes are also touted as home remedies. For larger or more painful canker sores, feel free to make an appointment to consult our dentist in Reading, MA. We will work with you to get your oral health back on track.