Health Library

Mouth ulcers

Definition

Mouth ulcers are sores or open lesions in the mouth.

See also: Canker sores

Alternative Names

Oral ulcer; Stomatitis - ulcerative; Ulcer - mouth

Causes

Mouth ulcers are caused by many disorders. These include:

The skin lesion of histoplasmosis may also appear as a mouth ulcer.

Symptoms

Symptoms vary and depend on the specific cause of the mouth ulcer. In general, symptoms may include:

  • Open sores in the mouth
  • Pain or discomfort in the mouth

Exams and Tests

A health care provider or dentist usually diagnoses the type of mouth ulcer, based on its appearance and location. Blood tests or a biopsy of the ulcer may be needed to confirm the cause.

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms. The cause, if known, should be treated.

Gentle, thorough oral hygiene may relieve some of the symptoms. Topical (rubbed on) antihistamines, antacids, corticosteroids, or other soothing preparations may be recommended for applying directly to the ulcer.

Avoid hot or spicy foods, which often increase the pain of mouth ulcers.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The outcome varies depending on the cause of the ulcer. Many mouth ulcers are harmless and heal without treatment.

There are types of cancer, however, that may first appear as a mouth ulcer that does not heal. See: Squamous cell carcinoma

Possible Complications

  • Cellulitis of the mouth, from secondary bacterial infection of ulcers
  • Dental infections (tooth abscesses)
  • Oral cancer
  • Spread of contagious disorders to other people

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if your mouth ulcers don't go away after 3 weeks. Call for an appointment with your health care provider if mouth ulcers return frequently, or if new symptoms develop.

Prevention

Good oral hygiene may help prevent some types of mouth ulcers, as well as some complications from mouth ulcers. Good oral hygiene includes brushing the teeth at least twice per day, flossing at least daily, and getting regular professional dental cleanings and examinations.

References

Muñoz-Corcuera M, Esparza-Gómez G, González-Moles MA, Bascones-Martínez A. Oral ulcers: clinical aspects. A tool for dermatologists. Part I. Acute ulcers. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2009 Apr;34(3):289-94.

Muñoz-Corcuera M, Esparza-Gómez G, González-Moles MA, Bascones-Martínez A. Oral ulcers: clinical aspects. A tool for dermatologists. Part II. Chronic ulcers. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2009 Jun;34(4):456-61. Epub 2009 Apr 14.

Mirowski GW, Mark LA. Oral disease and oral-cutaneous manifestations of gastrointestinal and liver disease. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran’s Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 22.


Review Date: 2/17/2011
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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