05/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mouth Health: Painful Canker Sores -- What Causes Them, And What Can I Do About Them?

One of the more misunderstood mouth/dental problems is our old friend, the canker sore. Now when I say misunderstood, I don't mean that people don't know what they are. It's more that people don't understand how they get them, and then when they DO get them, they usually don't do much else besides "wait".

So let's talk for a few minutes about canker sores -- we'll go over what they are, how they come about, and then what you can do about them. And you'll probably be surprised how quick and easy they are to get rid of.

What is a Canker Sore?

Essentially, a canker sore is a small ulcer inside the mouth. They can appear almost anywhere in the mouth -- the inner surface of the cheeks and lips; the tongue; the soft palate; and the base of the gums. They are usually white or yellow in color, surrounded by a red area. They are also pretty small -- typically no larger than a quarter of an inch in diameter (although they can get bigger sometimes). But they can be rather painful, especially if the canker sore resides in an area that will constantly be touched by food. I probably don't have to tell you how annoying this can be.

There really is no age limit in regards to canker sores -- anyone can get them at anytime. However, they are most prolific in children and young adults (ages 10-20), which sometimes leads people to incorrectly assume this is just a "kid's issue". It's not, and adults get them as well as children. And no matter who gets them, in general terms, canker sores can last for anywhere from 1-3 weeks.

What causes Canker Sores?

Would you be surprised if I said we really don't know for sure? Well, don't be surprised, because that's the official answer - -there is no known "absolute" cause for canker sores. However, that said, here are a few things we DO know:

• They seem to be somewhat hereditary.

• They somewhat occur more in women than men.

• Some canker sores are viral in nature.

• However, things like stress, dietary deficiencies, menstruation, and allergies can trigger canker sores. So can an irritation to the mouth (biting your lip/cheek, etc.)

• Also, certain foods (especially citrus fruits) can trigger a canker sore.

• Lastly, there may be a link to Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) found in most toothpaste brands. However, certain brands are free of SLS (like the Supersmile Teeth Whitening brand I've talked about here previously, and also some Tom's of Maine lines). If you have persistent canker sores, the cure might be as simple as changing toothpaste.

So, from the above, you can see that canker sores are one prolific affliction, and can crop up from a myriad of causes. The next question then becomes "what do you do about them?"

Treating Canker Sores:

There are several types of treatments available for canker sores, ranging from simply waiting to home remedies to over the counter solutions to a visit to your dentist. Let's go over all of these:

• Waiting it out - This is actually the most common treatment. It's also very unnecessary. I mean, really, why suffer?

• Home Remedies - Warm salt water is a classic all-around mouth soreness solution. Also, hydrogen peroxide may help as well. But in all honesty, these solutions, combined with waiting it out, are generally not the best ways to treat canker sores these days.

• Over the Counter Treatments - There are several over the counter treatments you can buy to help canker sores. Most are about as effective as the home remedies. However, there is one that is a Sulfuric Acid based solution called Debacterol® (at the time of writing this, Debacterol is only available from certain dentists).

• See your dentist for a laser treatment - Recent advancements in dental technology have changed the way canker sores are treated. In short, we can now treat them with a laser. This does a few things: it prevents the canker sore from getting larger, and it speeds the healing processes markedly. In many cases, the canker sore will vanish 10 days faster than it normally would have without the laser. This means it's best to get the laser treatment the first day you get the canker sore.

Regarding the laser treatment I mention above, part of the reason for this post was to introduce this treatment option to many of you. Since it's fairly new, it's likely many of you are not aware that a quick, 15-minute dental appointment can zap that canker sore and keep it from getting larger / more painful.

Now, of course, this assumes your dentist even has the laser -- this being a new treatment, many have not yet invested in this technology. But if you're tired of canker sores, there is a way to get rid of them fast, and it's probably worth your time to find a forward-thinking local dentist who can help you.

Until next time, Keep smiling!