You can often recognize the familiar pain and sting as soon as a canker sore appears. The irritating ulcer inside your mouth may be small, but it sure can pack a punch. Canker sores (aphthous ulcers) are so uncomfortable they make it difficult to eat or drink. Thankfully, there are several DIY treatments around your house that offer a canker sore cure.
Here are 12 canker sore home remedies that help soothe your discomfort, tips for preventing canker sores from popping up, and signs to watch out for that indicate you should get in to see your doctor.
What Is a Canker Sore?
You will most likely feel a canker sore before you see it, since they cause pain and swelling inside your mouth, on the underside of your lips, gums, or sides of the tongue. Canker sores are a type of ulcer that are typically colored white, gray, or yellow with a red border. They are very common, specifically targeting women over men. You also may be more susceptible to getting a canker sore if the tendency runs in your family or you are fighting another condition like an autoimmune disease.
While they make look similar and have comparable symptoms, canker sores differ from cold sores. Cold sores, sometimes called fever blisters, show up due to the herpes simplex virus. These types of sores are very contagious and can be passed from person to person through direct contact or through the sharing of a drink or toothbrush. If you have a canker sore, don’t worry, you cannot spread them to anyone else directly or indirectly.
Most canker sores are minor and will clear on their own within a couple weeks, and will likely start feeling better after 7 days. Sometimes a larger sore can develop that is much deeper and bigger than a minor sore and may leave behind a scar after it disappears in several weeks. Not as common, herpetiform sores are small ulcers that can appear in very large groups of one hundred or more.
Causes of Canker Sores
Canker sores have a way of showing up during times of stress, infection, or when your immune system has recently taken a hit. Certain medications can also cause canker sores, as can some deficiencies in some B vitamins, such as vitamin B12, iron, folic acid, and zinc. A canker sore may form if any of the tissues in your mouth are irritated, burned, or injured.
You can injure your mouth with a rough jab of your toothbrush or irritation due to braces, causing a sore to form. Sometimes a face injury from playing sports or other physical activities can also lead to a canker sore forming. Other canker sore causes include:
- Acidic and spicy food
- Allergies to food or medicine
- Toothpaste made with sodium lauryl sulfate
- Menstrual cycle or hormones
- Underlying disease or condition that affects your immune system
Signs It’s a Canker Sore
Canker sores let you know they’re coming by sending a burning feeling to the area before you even spot their appearance.
Other signs it’s a canker sore include:
- Pain and irritation at the site
- Red-bordered ulcer that is yellow, gray, or white in the middle
- Eating and drinking discomfort
Canker Sore Home Remedies
Finding canker sore relief is most likely at the top of your mind as soon as one pops up. Most of the time, canker sores will heal on their own after a week or so, without you having to do much but avoid irritants. However, if you are looking to soothe your mouth with a canker sore cure and speed up the healing process, you can go the over-the-counter route and use a topical medication or mouthwash available at your local drugstore. You can also find many ingredients right in your home that make excellent treatment options for subduing inflammation and pain.
Ice may not reduce the duration of a canker sore breakout, but it can ease the discomfort and inflammation. Apply a cold pack directly to the sore for temporary pain relief or hold crushed ice in your mouth near the sore and allow it to slowly melt.
Salt Water Rinse
One of the easiest canker sore remedies to make is simple salt water. Salt helps reduce acid and uses natural healing properties and minerals to get that ball rolling when trying to heal injuries or infections. Rinse your mouth with 1 teaspoon of salt water and a half cup warm water for 30 seconds to help your canker sore heal.
Baking Soda Rinse
The acids within your mouth that help break down food and fight bacteria can also wreak havoc on a canker sore. Baking soda neutralizes those acids while helping to kill bacteria and allowing your sore to heal quickly. To make a rinse, fill a cup with warm water and mix in 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Swish for several minutes, spit out, and repeat twice a day.
Clove oil, or eugenol oil, is a valuable natural remedy for canker sores. When applied directly to the sore, the active ingredient of eugenol, an anesthetic, will help temporarily numb the area. You are better off using pure oil instead of ground cloves from the pantry to get the most benefit and pain-fighting ability.
You probably reach for the aloe for a sunburn, but it can also be useful for canker sore relief. Apply a small amount of aloe to a dried canker sore using a clean finger or Q-tip. Try to avoid eating or drinking for at least an hour after application.
Tea Bag Compress
A warm compress using a steeped tea bag can help soothe an irritated mouth sore. Tea is packed with many great benefits, including astringent properties that can help heal the swollen tissue from a canker sore. After steeping a tea bag for several minutes, let it cool slightly and apply directly to your sore.
Zinc is often used to bolster the immune system, and in the case of canker sore treatment, its antibiotic properties create an environment that makes it difficult for canker sores to thrive. You can find zinc in the form of zinc lozenges that may help relieve pain and speed your canker sore healing time. You can suck on a lozenge a couple times a day, or dissolve one or two zinc lozenges in a half cup of hydrogen peroxide and a half cup of water to gargle several times a day.
Sage is another natural remedy that totes anti-infection and anti-inflammatory properties. (You may spot it in some brands of toothpaste!) To make your own rinse to soothe a canker sore, use a tablespoon of fresh sage and steep in boiling water for several minutes. Remove the leaves and allow the liquid to cool completely. Swish it as you would mouthwash and spit out. You can store the rinse in your refrigerator and use as needed.
Milk of Magnesia Rinse
You can use milk of magnesia’s antacid properties to your advantage by creating a rinse that helps neutralize the acids in your mouth that are irritating your painful sores. Swish for several minutes and spit out. You can also apply a little directly to your canker sore using a cotton swab. For a variation of this rinse, add a teaspoon of liquid Benadryl and mix well. The Benadryl acts as a numbing agent that helps to reduce the amount of pain the sore registers when irritated.
There is always a risk that your canker sore can become infected, extending how long it takes to heal. Luckily, a common staple in your medicine cabinet can offer protection and disinfection. Hydrogen peroxide can be used as a mouthwash when you have a canker sore to keep it clean and free of germs. To make a rinse, combine 1/4 cup of water, 1/4 cup of hydrogen peroxide, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon baking soda. Swish twice daily, and be sure to spit out all the mixture.
Found in many natural grocery stores, licorice tea can help soothe and speed up canker sore healing. Steep a bag in boiling water and allow to cool. You can drink the tea, swishing it around in your mouth, as well as applying the steeped bag directly to the canker sore site.
Goldenseal is a top-selling herbal product that has been used for fighting a variety of issues, from respiratory infections to digestive disorders. It has also been helpful in treating canker sores and mouth irritations. In 1 cup of warm water, mix 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the contents of one goldenseal capsule. Use this as a mouth rinse twice daily while your canker sore persists.
When to See a Doctor
Sometimes canker sores are a red flag that something else may be going on. If you spike a fever, are losing weight, are fighting fatigue, or have other symptoms, seek medical advice from a health care professional. If you get canker sores frequently, it’s a good idea to see your doctor as well, as there may be an underlying medical condition at play, such as lupus, Crohn's disease, or celiac disease. Also contact your doctor or dentist if your canker sores are:
- Growing in size
- Not healing after several weeks
- Preventing you from eating or drinking
Preventing Canker Sores
Canker sores are very common and sometimes your body’s way of telling you to slow down and take better care of yourself. There are, however, several canker sore prevention methods to employ. Some general tips include:
- Cut back on acidic foods such as citrus fruits or spicy foods that irritate canker sores.
- Opt for brushes with soft bristles and don't brush too hard.
- Avoid the toothpaste ingredient sodium lauryl sulfate.
- Reduce stress as much as possible through relaxation techniques, ample rest, and exercise.
Supplementing Vitamin Deficiencies
Vitamin deficiencies may be responsible for your canker sores, especially if you get them more frequently. For instance, not having enough of the amino acid L-lysine causes canker sores. Lysine is an amino acid that is available in both food sources and in supplemental form. It is an essential amino acid, which means your body does not manufacture this amino acid from other sources and you must get it from your diet or by supplementation.
In research studies, L-lysine promotes the healing and prevention of canker stores by supporting skin and oral health and giving an overall boost to your immune system.
Arginine is another amino acid, found naturally in foods, that breaks down dental plaque and helps reduce gum disease and improve your overall dental health. To amp up arginine levels in the body, it is best to take a complete essential amino acid supplement that contains citrulline, which, unlike arginine, can pass through the liver and be converted to arginine in the kidneys and then released into the bloodstream and to the rest of the body.
A complete amino acid powder with citrulline also contains lysine and a correct mix of amino acids to provide you with a safe and healthy balance that offers the most benefits.