Canker Sore vs. Cancer: Don’t Mistake One for the Other

A patient talking to a doctor

The appearance of a round wound with a depressed center in your mouth may not alarm you at first. But this ulcer, also called canker sore, will be felt initially. You’ll have a hard time eating, brushing and drinking; the very basic things you do every day will feel torturous. But that feeling is probably nothing compared to a sudden conclusion that what’s in your mouth could be cancerous.

How can you tell a canker sore vs cancer of the mouth?

Canker Sore vs Cancer

A canker sore isn’t serious. Most will be benign and typically clear up in a week; two if it’s a serious canker sore.

What’s a serious sore? Canker sores come in three types:

  1. Minor – 10- to 20-year-old people will usually develop these, about three or four times a year. They’ll heal up in a week without scars.
  2. Major – Larger than a minor canker sore, healing up in two weeks with scars.
  3. Herpetiform – Rare clusters of 10 to 100 tiny mouth ulcers, which heal in about a week.

If the ulcers appear repeatedly, you may have aphthous stomatitis. This recurring condition usually occurs in kids and teens, and lasts for several years, eventually disappearing. 

Unlike cancer, canker sores appear as shallow, grey, white or yellow wounds. The border is usually red. What’s the stuff in a canker sore? The white is just the residue of dead tissue, and per dentists, nothing to be alarmed about.

Mouth cancer will look patchy, flat, white and red. They’ll be rough and hard, and not easy to scrape off from your cheeks, tongue, gums and lips. They’ll sometimes appear in the throat, too.

A canker sore versus cancer of the mouth will be extremely painful because the wound has exposed nerve endings. When substances, from saliva to acidic food, meet these nerve endings, pain sets in. A canker sore on the tonsil, which is rare, may be excruciating.

Mouth cancer pain will not be felt in its early stage. But when it advances, the agony will be felt in the teeth, jaw or the ears. Unlike a canker sore or an aphthous ulcer, the patches will not go away and will likely spread.

Canker sores generally do not need treatment since they do go away on their own. But if you’ve had them for more three weeks or more, it would be time to see a specialist.

Canker Sores vs Cold Sores: Is There a Difference?

Another type of mouth sore is not just felt but absolutely visible. Cold sores form on and around the lips; these also become an oral cavity issue when they form inside the mouth. It’s different from canker sores because the aphthous ulcers develop only in the soft tissues.

But the location of the canker sores vs the cold sores is not the only factor that differentiates the two oral issues. How they developed is also a factor in determining whether you may have cold sores.

Cold sores

  • Herpes simplex virus infection
  • Hormonal changes (e.g., menstruation)
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight
  • Flu or cold (which is why the condition is sometimes referred to as “fever blisters)

Canker sores

  • Vitamin deficiencies (from B12, folate or iron)
  • Conditions that compromise the immune system (e.g., lupus)
  • Hormonal changes
  • Food allergies
  • Injury to the inside of the mouth

Can Canker Sores Turn to Cancer?

Focused dentist treating teeth of African American patient

Appearance and pain are not the only distinctions that determine whether the wound in your mouth is a canker sore. Cause is also a primary consideration. Although doctors have not yet discovered why a sore appears since it varies from person-to-person, some risk factors make it easier to develop.

These are:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Hormonal changes
  • Ill-fitting dentures
  • The habit of biting one’s tongue or inside cheek
  • Allergy to toothpaste or mouthwash
  • Medication like nonsteroidal drugs, pain medication or beta-blockers
  • A diet of highly acidic food
  • Genetics

Fortunately, a canker sore does not turn to cancer or is not cancerous. If the wound in your mouth persists for more than three weeks, appears larger than an ulcer and has started to feel unusually painful, it may not be a canker sore in the first place.

When Should You be Concerned?

Beyond the wound lasting for more than three weeks, the exceptional pain and appearance, developing a fever may also be a symptom of a more severe condition. If the wound starts to show up in another area of the mouth even after, that it’s spreading or a new bacterial infection has occurred, an appointment with your doctor must be immediate.

Sometimes other sort of wounds appear that may indicate oral melanoma.

A blood blister on the mouth, which is a sore filled with blood inside the mouth, may be indicative of mouth cancer. These blisters sometimes appear suddenly, but like canker sores, some risk factors prompt it:

  • Braces
  • Allergies
  • Ill-fitting dentures
  • Stress

Some cases of blood blister on the lip could be due to angina bullosa hemorraghica. It’s a benign and uncommon condition.

Oral cancer signs may differ, depending on where it’s located: the lip, jaw, tongue or gum. Generally, following may indicate oral cancer, which should prompt a screening with a specialist:

  • Ear pain
  • Unexplained bleeding in the mouth
  • Jaw swelling or pain
  • Persistent mouth sores, face sore or neck sore, which bleed and don’t heal in 2 weeks
  • Chronic sore throat or change in voice

But cancer of the mouth is not the only potential condition that could cause severe lesions. Diabetes is one other condition to watch for if your wounds do not heal or seem especially worrying. Oral herpes is also a probability. Low platelet count could also be a worrying cause because it could lead to internal bleeding.

Severe symptoms should prompt you to go to your doctor; this could be a dentist or the family physician. Either way, if the resulting diagnosis and checkup concern your physician, they’ll recommend a consultation with a specialist. That specialist will then do a round of diagnostics and testing to determine if your mouth wounds require serious medical treatment.

Otherwise, canker sores can be managed with some home treatments.

Canker Sore RemediesDoctor offering choice to patient in office

Although mouth ulcers go away on their own, treatments may be necessary to cope with the pain and discomfort.

Your dentist may prescribe topical applications, from medicated gels and creams to liquids. Formulated solutions may also bring down the swelling. 

Mouth rinses are also part of a canker sore treatment. Two of the most common rinses are: salt or baking soda dissolved in warm water.

For salt water, mix a teaspoon of salt in half a cup of warm water. The same measurement applies to baking soda water. You’ll only need to swirl the rinse in your mouth for 15 to 30 seconds every few hours, or as your dentist would recommend.

Other natural remedies to canker sore:

  1. Honey – a clinical trial has found this natural substance to be effective in treating mouth ulcers, and may even prevent a secondary infection.
  2. Coconut oil – like honey, coconut oil also contains antimicrobial properties, preventing a sore to spread.
  3. Chamomile – the aromatic plant works for pain and healing because of its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties. You may use a chamomile tea bag compress to soothe your mouth sore. 

Canker sores look unsightly, and they feel even worse. These oral wounds or lesions do not look like mouth cancer, but if your wound does not go away when it should, a doctor’s appointment is in order.

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