What is an Aphthous Ulcer?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An aphthous ulcer is an ulceration which appears in the mucus membranes of the mouth. Also known as canker sores or aphthous stomatitis, aphthous ulcers can be quite painful. Women tend to be more prone to experiencing them than men do, and certain circumstances can cause these ulcerations to become recurrent. If a patient experiences multiple canker sores or finds that they keep recurring, it may be a good idea to consult a doctor to discuss possible causes and treatment options.

Canker sores are not the same thing as cold sores.
Canker sores are not the same thing as cold sores.

It is important to distinguish between aphthous ulcers and cold sores, also known as fever blisters. Cold sores are linked with the herpes simplex virus, and they tend to appear around the lips, on the face, and sometimes in the mouth, usually on the hard palate. Cold sores are highly contagious, and the frequency of outbreaks can vary, depending on the patient. An aphthous ulcer always appears inside the mouth, usually along the inside of the lip or the gumline, and it is not contagious; having recurrent canker sores does not mean that someone has herpes, in other words.

There are a number of causes for aphthous ulcers. Sometimes they can be linked with diet, especially dietary insufficiencies in nutrients like zinc. Stress and fatigue can be factors, as can physical trauma to the mouth. Certain diseases and medications can also lead to the development of aphthous ulcers. Chemotherapy patients, for example, are prone to these sores with some chemotherapy medications, and their mouths can become quite sore and tender.

Usually, the development of an aphthous ulcer starts with some tenderness, tingling and redness. Several days later, a white to yellowish ulceration appears. It can linger as long as a week before resolving. While the aphthous ulcer is present, eating and drinking can be painful, especially when acidic, salty, and spicy foods are involved. Some people also react to sweet and fatty foods, which can limit dietary options considerably.

Topical gels can be applied to temporarily numb the site of an aphthous ulcer for more comfort. Some patients find that it helps to rinse with mild saline solutions or medicated mouthwashes after eating. Medications such as steroids can also be given to help resolve the ulceration more quickly. In the case of recurrent aphthous ulcers, a doctor may recommend testing to see if there is an underlying disease process which is contributing to the problem, as addressing this may resolve the painful sores as well.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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