How to Get Rid of a Canker Sore ASAP, According to Experts

GeorgePeters/Getty Images

If you panic-googled “how to get rid of a canker sore” because you have one of these tender spots inside your mouth—or you feel one brewing—you’ve come to the right place. As tiny as they are, canker sores sure do pack a punch. They can make eating, drinking, kissing, and even just talking super uncomfortable.

So we talked to medical experts about what, exactly, causes those pesky lesions in the first place—and how to make them go away ASAP (or at least make them a little more bearable in the meantime).

What are canker sores, exactly?

To get specific, canker sores are small, shallow ulcers that develop in the soft tissues of the mouth. They can form on the inside of your cheeks, the base of your gums, and even on your tongue, Erich Voigt, MD, director of the division of general otolaryngology at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SELF.

“They can happen to anyone,” Dr. Voigt says. Usually, they look like small white or yellow-tinged spots, and they can hurt like absolute hell, causing a stinging pain that intensifies when you eat something acidic or spicy, touch them with your tongue, or even drink water.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, Are canker sores contagious?, you might be mistaking them for cold sores, or “fever blisters.” These suckers are caused by the herpes virus and, unlike canker sores, can easily be spread via skin-to-skin contact like kissing. (If you have a lesion in your mouth that’s blistering, has tiny bubbles of clear fluid, or is crusted over, you should see your primary care doctor. That could be a herpes sore.)

What causes canker sores?

Unfortunately researchers don’t really know what, exactly, causes these annoying little ulcers to show up, but there are a handful of things that may trigger them, Leena Palomo, DDS, MSD, a board-certified periodontist and professor at New York University, College of Dentistry, tells SELF. “For some people, it’s spicy or acidic foods [like pineapple, grapefruit, or oranges],” Dr. Palomo says. Research also suggests that sodium lauryl sulfate (found in many toothpastes) can cause inflammation in the mouth, leading to those frustrating spots, she adds.

Another common trigger that both Dr. Voigt and Dr. Palomo have seen is local trauma—from brushing your teeth too aggressively, for example, accidentally biting the inside of your mouth while chewing, or diving into a bag of sharp Doritos. You may also get one of those awful little suckers when you’re stressed or when your immune system is weak—maybe your body’s fighting off a virus, for instance. Canker sores (which, by the way, are usually genetic) can also be a side effect of certain autoimmune conditions like celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and Behçet's disease (which causes inflammation in the blood vessels), according to Dr. Palomo.

How to treat a canker sore at home

So…can you pop a canker sore to make it go away? Let us save you some trouble: Since canker sores are shallow wounds—not blisters or pimples—there’s really nothing there to pop. Plus, it’ll probably hurt if you try.

The good news is that canker sores usually get better on their own, typically within a week or two, per Dr. Palomo. Still, 10 days can feel like an eternity when your mouth is pulsating with a persistent sting, so you might want to consider these at-home treatments while you wait.

1. Stick to eating soft and bland foods.

Because spicy, acidic, and sharp foods can further inflame or injure your ulcer, Dr. Palomo recommends steering clear of things like buffalo wings, citrus fruits, tortilla chips, and pretzels. Instead, try to stick with soft and bland options like oatmeal, mild soups, mashed potatoes, and bananas, she says.

2. Use an over-the-counter numbing gel.

To manage the discomfort, you can consider turning to over-the-counter numbing gels or creams specifically designed to go inside your mouth, like Orajel or Kank-A. Both of these topical treatments contain benzocaine, an anesthetic that’ll desensitize the area quickly, per the Mayo Clinic. Keep in mind, though: These types of pain relievers aren’t a long-lasting solution, since the saliva in your mouth can dissolve them pretty quickly, Dr. Voigt cautions. Plus, benzocaine can sometimes cause allergic reactions, so you’ll want to be extra careful before going ham.

3. Gargle warm salt water.

A salt water rinse is one treatment many people (myself included) swear by—even though there isn’t much research to back it up. The idea behind this DIY solution: Salt (which has antibacterial properties) will reduce some of the inflammation that’s causing you so much pain.

If you’re considering giving this home remedy a try, the National Health Service (NHS) recommends using just half a teaspoon of salt and mixing it into a cup of warm water—then rinsing, gargling, and repeating twice a day. (Using too much salt or swishing too frequently, Dr. Palomo says, might cause more irritation.)

4. Use a cotton swab to apply milk of magnesia on your sore.

Milk of magnesia is a liquid antacid commonly used to treat heartburn and indigestion, but Dr. Palomo says applying a little bit on your sore can knock out some of that pain.

There’s no solid research showing that it actually gets rid of mouth ulcers (you know, since it’s meant to help with gastrointestinal issues). But Dr. Palomo explains that milk of magnesia will at least “create a little barrier around the sore”—it’s like giving that painful region a little shield so that it doesn’t get more irritated.

Just keep in mind that accidentally swallowing too much can cause unpleasant side effects like diarrhea, she adds, so if your sore lasts more than three weeks, see a primary care doctor—Dr. Palomo says milk of magnesia should only be used for short-term relief.

5. Cover the area with a mixture of alum and water.

Some people also apply alum, a pickling agent you can find at most grocery stores, for immediate relief. More specifically, it’s generally recommended to mix a bit of alum powder with a drop or two of water until a paste forms, apply it to your sore for a few minutes, then rinse thoroughly with water. (Alum is an astringent, so leaving it on for too long can be irritating and drying.)

Research shows that it might work by causing the tissue in your mouth to contract, which can reduce inflammation and swelling. You may have heard about this remedy on social media or through word of mouth, but alum doesn’t rank high among doctor recommendations, since there’s not much research showing that it works for mouth ulcers, specifically. That said, there is some evidence to suggest that it may be effective—like this study from 2016, which found that the food additive reduced the size and severity of canker sores.

So, if you’re curious (or desperate to soothe that spot ASAP), there’s probably no harm in giving this method a try. Be warned, though: It may burn a little and taste kind of gross.

6. Coat your sore with raw honey.

Another low-risk idea: Rub a drop or two of raw honey on that tender spot. Like many of the treatments above, this staple sweetener isn’t a proven canker sore fix, but one study from 2009 did find that honey (which is non-irritating and antibacterial) helps heal wounds—including those in your mouth. And in another, more recent study, it also reduced the size of canker sores and calmed inflammation faster than topical steroids—and without side effects. If you’re going to try this method, though, just make sure you use pure honey—not an artificially sweetened or flavored bottle (with possibly irritating additives).

While the above methods can help ease your pain (agony, really) while you await some much-needed relief, if your canker sore lasts longer than three weeks—or it starts bleeding or gets bigger over time—it’s a good idea to see a dentist or doctor. These medical professionals can rule out anything more serious, like oral cancer; hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFM); or the autoimmune conditions listed above. They can also prescribe stronger treatments to speed up the healing process (like topical steroids and prescription mouth rinses) or chemically cauterize them, so they close up, she adds.

Usually, though, canker sores are nothing more than super annoying yet normal nuisances many of us deal with every now and then. Just lay off the hot sauce and go easy with the toothbrush, and you should make it through.


Originally Appeared on SELF