Mouth Ulcers

Given their diminutive size, it's hard to fathom how mouth ulcers can hurt as much as they do. Commonsense self-care measures can assist you in avoiding these painful ulcers, and supplements may help you reduce their frequency and speed their healing.

What is it?

Though not serious, mouth ulcers can be so trouble-some that they can cause intense pain when talking, kissing, drinking and eating. Affecting women more often than men, these shallow, ulcerated areas often appear singly or in small clusters inside the mouth, and range in size from as tiny as a pinhead to as large as a five-cent coin. Mouth ulcers emerge fairly suddenly and usually go away within one to three weeks. Fortunately, it is possible to ease the discomfort they cause.

What causes it?

The prevailing view is that mouth ulcers are triggered by stress, which can cause the body's immune system to overreact to bacteria normally present in the mouth. Mouth ulcers can also be precipitated by a number of actions, such as irritating the mouth cavity with a rough filling or a jagged or chipped tooth or wearing ill-fitting dentures. Maybe you've unconsciously gnawed as the inside of your cheek, used a toothbrush with very hard bristles or brushed too vigorously. Occasionally, even eating acidic, spicy or salty foods – tomatoes, citrus fruits, hot peppers, cinnamon, nuts or potato chips – can be the initiating factor.

Some experts believe recurring mouth ulcers are an allergic reaction to food preservatives (benzoic acid, methylparaben or sorbic acid, to name a few) or to something in a food. They single out gluten, the protein found in wheat and some other grains, as the most likely offender.

What are the symptoms?

  • Small white or yellowish sores surrounded by a red area on the tongue, gums, or soft palate or inside the lips or cheeks.
  • Burning, itchiness or a tingling feeling before a sore appears.
  • Raw pain when eating and speaking, strongest during the first few days.

Are there any natural therapies?

First try lysine – a deficiency in this amino acid has been associated with mouth ulcers. Echinacea strengthens the immune system and may prevent ulcers from forming. Another immune-booster, vitamin C helps heal the mouth's mucous membranes; flavonoids are natural compounds that enhance the effctiveness of this vitamin. Licorice extract coats and protects ulcers from irritants and helps them to heal. Goldenseal in liquid form applied directly to the sore also promotes healing. Alternatively, try zinc lozenges to speed healing and boost your resistance. People who get mouth ulcers frequently may be deficient in B vitamins; a daily vitamin B complex is useful as a preventative.

What else can I do?

  • Keep your mouth clean and healthy by flossing and brushing your teeth at least twice a day. Be gentle and use a soft-bristled brush.
  • See your dentist if a tooth problem is irritating your mouth.
  • Be aware if you're constantly gnawing at the inside of your cheek – get your 'bite' checked out by a dentist.
  • Don't eat spicy foods if you're prone to recurrent mouth ulcers. Stay away from coffee and chewing gum, other known irritants.

Did you know?

Even the ancient Greeks were plagued by mouth ulcers. It was Hippocrates, called the father of medicine, who in the fourth century B.C. coined the medical term for them: aphthous stomatitis.