Canker Sore or Cancer?

Sores in and around the mouth can be a source of embar­rass­ment for many peo­ple. How­ev­er not all sores are the same. Pri­mar­i­ly there are three dif­fer­ent types of sores that can occur in the mouth; canker sores, cold sores and oral can­cer lesions. Under­stand­ing the dif­fer­ence between these three types can help you make wise deci­sions and stay healthy.

Canker Sores

Rough­ly 80 per­cent of the US pop­u­la­tion, between the ages of 10 – 20, gets canker sores. Canker sores, also called aph­t­hous ulcers, are typ­i­cal­ly small, shal­low bub­ble-like ulcers inside the mouth – either on the inside of the lip, cheeks or tongue. While these sym­met­ri­cal sores hurt after they open up, they are not con­ta­gious and gen­er­al­ly heal in five to ten days on their own. There are many lifestyle changes that you can make to aid in heal­ing, such as eat­ing soft food or soups, drink­ing cold liq­uids, rins­ing with salt water or over-the-counter med­ica­tions. Canker sores are dif­fer­ent than cold sores.

    Cold Sores

    Cold sores gen­er­al­ly appear on the out­side of the mouth around the lips. They can occur in oth­er areas of the mouth, but that is rare. They look like flu­id-filled blis­ters, but will even­tu­al­ly open, crust over and dry up. These fever blis­ters” are caused by her­pes sim­plex virus – type 1 (HSV‑1) once it becomes active and can be con­ta­gious. Cold sores can spread via kiss­ing or through some­thing sim­ple like shar­ing a glass of water. This virus can be trans­mit­ted to oth­ers even when no blis­ters are vis­i­ble. Treat­ment con­sists of an antivi­ral ointment.

      Oral Can­cer Lesion

      Oral can­cer lesions – in their ear­ly stage – could mim­ic the look of an open canker sore any­where inside the mouth and throat or be a dis­col­ored lump on the edge of your lip. Gen­er­al­ly these do not heal or go away. Can­cer cells may stay in a con­cen­trat­ed spot for a while, but will even­tu­al­ly spread more aggres­sive­ly. It’s impor­tant to have the spot checked out soon­er rather than lat­er by your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian, den­tist or oto­laryn­gol­o­gist. Nor­mal­ly your den­tist or hygien­ist will do an oral can­cer check (as well as exam­ine your neck and throat) at your bi-annu­al den­tal clean­ings/check-ups, which is why it is impor­tant to stick to a rou­tine schedule.

        HPV & Cancer

        Oral/​throat can­cers are uncom­mon, but on the rise. In the past, oral can­cer was thought to be caused by tobac­co use and alco­hol. How­ev­er, research has recent­ly found a new cul­prit that is lead­ing to ris­ing rates: human papil­lo­ma virus (HPV) strains 16 and 18, which account for up to 30 per­cent of all oropha­ryn­geal (ton­sils, base of tongue and back of throat) can­cer cas­es. This sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­ease can be passed by both men and woman pri­mar­i­ly through oral sex. You can proac­tive­ly fight this dis­ease by get­ting the HPV vac­cine which pre­vents this infec­tion. HPV vac­cine is only effec­tive in peo­ple who do not yet have the dis­ease and is rec­om­mend­ed for males and females between the age of 9 – 26.

        If you find a sore in your mouth, and it doesn’t heal after two weeks, sched­ule an appoint­ment with your pri­ma­ry care provider.

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