Canker Sores Are the Absolute Worst, but These Home Remedies Could Help

Photo: Getty Images/Alessandro Mucci EyeEm
Like an accidental dry-shampoo overdose or a bad first date, canker sores can strike anyone at anytime, without warning. So it's important to have an arsenal of home remedies for canker sores at your disposal—that way, you know exactly how to deal with your mouth ulcer so it doesn't slow down your enjoyment of vegan Rice Krispie treats.

But before we get to that part, it helps to have a general understanding of what a canker sore actually is. In short, a canker sore is a shallow ulcer that forms in your mouth. It’s usually small, with a white or yellow center surrounded by a red halo. This nasty little pain-in-the-mouth can stake out real estate in a variety of locations, including the gums, tongue, soft palate, lips, or cheeks.

So how do you know you’re dealing with a canker sore? Unlike cold sores, which are caused by a virus and pop up on visible parts on your face, canker sores almost always take up residence in the hidden nooks and crannies inside your mouth. You may experience a stinging, burning, or tingling sensation prior to when the canker sore makes its debut. The most troublesome symptom, and the one most likely to send you on the hunt for a remedy, is the pain you will likely experience at the site of canker sore once it's erupted, especially when talking or eating.

Are you ready for the good news? Canker sores are not contagious, which means you can’t catch one from someone else who is suffering. Plus, most cases are "mild" (though they may not feel that way when you’re in the midst of canker-sore hell) and will heal without intervention within a week or two. A canker sore that lasts longer or is accompanied by a fever or swollen lymph nodes is cause to get in touch with your doc for some extra reinforcements.

What causes canker sores in the first place?

Unfortunately, pinpointing the precise cause of your canker sore is tricky business. Some folks seem more prone to repeat attacks, and often their family members are in the same, sad boat, which suggests a genetic component.

According to the Mayo Clinic, any given episode of canker sores can be caused by a number of different factors, including:

  • A minor injury in your mouth
  • Food sensitivities (chocolate, coffee, strawberries, eggs, nuts, cheese, and acidic or spicy foods may be to blame)
  • Dental products that contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Bacteria
  • Medications
  • Medical conditions
  • Shifting hormone levels
  • Emotional stress

Though you’re unlikely to get a handle on each and every one of these potential triggers, it’s helpful to know what they are—especially if you find that you are frequently afflicted.

home remedies for canker sores
Photo: Getty Images/Emilija Manevska

Are there any home remedies for canker sores?

Even if you make your best effort to limit your Brie intake or avoid toothpaste that contains SLS, it’s darn near impossible to wipe out stress entirely or prevent your hormone levels from shifting throughout your monthly cycle. Luckily, you don’t have to dip into your savings account to purchase a prescription fix—there are a variety of natural salves that you can use to soothe a canker sore.

1. Hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is a simple ingredient that can wipe out bacteria. Jennifer Palmer, the owner and founder of Nourishing Journey Wellness Center, recommends this one: “I like to use a cotton swab soaked in hydrogen peroxide and dab it on the sore a few times per day,” she says. (She's also a fan of using tea tree essential oil for this purpose.)

2. Milk of magnesia

Though magnesium hydroxide (more commonly known as milk of magnesia) is typically used to treat constipation, it’s also an antacid that's believed to help neutralize pH. In theory, this would create a less hospitable environment for your canker sore, although this hypothesis hasn't been rigorously tested. You can try dabbing milk of magnesia on your canker sore up to three times a day—just make sure you rinse it off after it has a few seconds to soak in.

3. Salt-water or baking-soda rinse

Rinses are among the most natural and simple of all remedies, which may be one of the reasons they’re so popular in wellness circles. Salt-water rinses may help to lessen inflammation, while swishing an alkaline baking-soda mixture may be another way to neutralize your mouth’s pH. You can use each of these rinses several times each day—just swish them around your mouth for a minute or so and spit them out. To prepare a salt-water rinse, stir a quarter- to a half-teaspoon of table salt or sea salt into a cup of warm or hot water until it is completely dissolved. For a baking-soda cocktail, swap out the salt for baking soda. Be sure to prepare a fresh batch each time you’re ready to rinse.

4. DGL or sage mouthwashes

Deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) and sage are both thought to help reduce inflammation. To make DGL mouthwash, dissolve the powder from a DGL supplement capsule in a cup of warm water. You can also contact your dentist to ask about a DGL mouth patch that may provide an even quicker route to canker sore relief. For sage mouthwash, steep 1 to 2 tablespoons of sage leaves in boiling water for 5 minutes before straining and cooling the mouthwash.

5. Lozenges, vitamins, and herbs

While there's no research backing up their effectiveness in treating canker sores,  zinc lozenges, vitamin B complex, vitamin C, and lysine are anecdotally said to aid in recovery. You may have also heard that echinacea can be used topically for wounds. But again, although some people swear by it, not much research has been done on its effectiveness in this realm.

6. Probiotics

It may be impossible to know how you got your canker sore in the first place. But if you suspect it may be related to the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria that sometimes cause stomach ulcers (and has been linked to canker sores, too), then probiotics may help. Look for a supplement with the Lactobacillus johnsonii strain, which has been shown to inhibit H. pylori growth in a few small human and animal studies. Probiotics may also improve symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), which has been linked to the incidence of canker sores.

7. Honey

For those who want to tap into the healing powers of honey, research has shown that it may reduce the pain and size of canker sores when applied a few times each day. (Just make sure your honey is as pure and unprocessed as possible to reap the max benefits.)

Foods to avoid when you have a canker sore

In addition to any of these natural home remedies for canker sores, you may wish to work in a few strategies to reduce discomfort while you wait for the pain to subside. Palmer recommends ditching sugar for the foreseeable future. (At least until your canker sore is history). “If I eat anything with sugar while I have a canker sore, it immediately feels worse,” she says.

Physicians at the Mayo Clinic suggest you avoid foods and drinks that are abrasive, acidic, or spicy. They also say to melt ice chips over your sores, which numbs the ache. Oh, and as hard as it may be, try not to run your tongue over the canker sore, which may further irritate it. You should also take care to brush your teeth and rinse your mouth gently, to keep from poking and angering the bear.

How to prevent canker sores from forming

In order to reduce the recurrence of canker sores, you should try to determine and then avoid any foods to which you are sensitive. You should also practice good oral hygiene so that you regularly remove any irritants that might trigger a sore.

Stock up on soft-bristle toothbrushes so that you’re less likely to scrape your mouth, and ask your dentist about orthodontic waxes to smooth out the sharp edges of dental appliances, such as braces or retainers, which may break skin on your inner cheeks or gums. Finally, if you haven’t already developed relaxation rituals to help keep your stress levels in check, this is an excellent excuse to do so.

There's nothing enjoyable about these irksome ulcers, but you're far from powerless against them. 'Till next time, canker sore—don’t let the salt-water rinse hit you on the way out.

Let's settle this: Do you really need fluoride to keep your teeth healthy? Dentists weigh in here. Plus, check out these natural ways to whiten your teeth, no bleach trays required.

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