Solving the Mystery: Is It A Canker Sore or Cold Sore?

What causes those painful mouth sores, and what can you do about them?

Life is full of mysteries, some of them more pleasant to solve than others. Still, the human mind loves puzzles with solutions. That’s particularly true of mysteries close to you for which the solution is high stakes to your overall health and well-being. If you notice a sore in or around your mouth, the mystery of what caused that sore and what to do about it is likely to rank high in your list of priority mysteries to unravel. So, you woke up with a bothersome red spot that’s interfering with your great oral health. Is that a canker sore or a cold sore? What’s the difference, how can you tell, and, most importantly, how can you treat them?

The Suspects (What’s the Difference)
Canker Sores

Canker sores are a type of mouth ulcer. They are usually relatively small; they have a red border and a white or yellow center. You can find them on the soft parts of the inside of your mouth—the inner cheeks, the inner lips, or the base of your gums. They are incredibly common. More than half of all people will struggle with a canker sore at some point or another.  Canker sores are not contagious.

Cold Sores

Cold sores are a type of infection. They start as tiny blisters clustered together that break and create a sore. The early blisters are full of fluid. The sores that develop after they break tend to have a crusted over appearance. Cold sores develop on the outside of your lips. Like canker sores, they can be quite painful. Cold sores are incredibly contagious.

The Clues (How Can You Tell)

The first, and often most telling, clue to look at is the location of the sore. Canker sores generally do not happen on the outside of the lips, although they can occur on the inside of the lips. Cold sores do break out on the outside of the lips, even if they extend beyond the lips onto the corners of the mouth or other skin surrounding the mouth.

The second clue is the appearance and development. A canker sore is red edged with a white or yellow middle. A cold sore starts with a blister and becomes a large sore.

Time can also help you sort out which type of sore you are suffering from. Canker sores usually resolve in 1-2 weeks. Cold sores can take 2-4 weeks to heal up.

If you have any questions about which type of sore you are dealing with, do not hesitate to call in the pros. A quick visit with your dental care team or primary care team can clear up the question right away since both sets of medical professionals are trained to recognize and treat both kinds of sores.

Solving the Puzzle (What Can You Do About Them)

Because they have very different causes, it stands to reason that canker sores and cold sores have very different treatments.

Canker sores usually clear up all on their own, but they can be painful, driving sufferers to seek relief by treating the ulcer. A saltwater rinse or a high-quality antimicrobial oral rinse can help, possibly because the bacteria that live in the mouth of people with frequent canker sores can be different than those with healthy mouths. Changing the oral pH with baking soda rinses or milk of magnesia has also shown to help.

Cold sores, on the other hand, may clear up on their own, but they are an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. They are contagious the entire time you have them, even if the sore is not visible but is still present. Treatment usually involves an over the counter or prescription anti-viral cream applied at the first indication that a cold sore is coming on. Some research has shown promise in treating cold sores with tea tree oil and other natural anti-microbial agents.

Because cold sores are contagious, it’s important to practice excellent handwashing practices, avoid contact with the sores and other people, and make sure you don’t share drinks, foods, or anything else that might have touched the sore or your hands after you touched the cold sore. Cold sores also recur, so once you have them, you will experience outbreaks in the future. It’s important to learn to recognize the signs so you can treat them early in the future.

A little detective work is likely to be fruitful in solving the mystery of the mouth sores. With the right treatment and approach, you can be back on your way to good oral health right away.

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