Canker Sores: 13 Cures to a Pesky Problem

Floyd Bob has a bad mouth. He eats his pizza so hot the mozzarella melts his soft palate. He loves to suck on lemon drops that etch the lining of his cheeks. When he has to think real hard (that’s often, because to Floyd Bob, every day is a brand-new day), he chomps down on the inside of his lip like it was a good chaw. These habits give Floyd Bob canker sores that hurt like the time he made porcupine stew but forgot to pull out the quills. When Floyd Bob has canker sores, he’s cranky, hungry, sleepy, and, as Suzy Jane will tell ya, most dee-cidedly unromantic.

Yep, this little mouth ulcer, this canker sore, can keep you from doing many of the things that make life worth living. This little ulcer is also a big mystery. No one knows why some people get canker sores and others don’t. A hot pizza burn that heals in 2 or 3 days with little pain in most people, says Harold R. Stanley, D.D.S., professor emeritus at the University of Florida College of Dentistry, can set off in others “a sequence of events that leads to a lesion that won’t heal for 10 to 15 days.” Along with bad habits, heredity, food, overenthusiastic toothbrushing, and emotional stress are also highly associated with canker sores. You have to be a detective to find the cause.

Whatever the cause, trying to medicate a canker sore is a difficult task, says Robert Goepp, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor at the University of Chicago Medical Center and hospital. Nothing sticks well to the skin in your mouth, and it’s the most bacteria-laden place in the body. Remedies have a double-barreled aim: to kill the organisms that infect the sore (causing most of the pain and the red inflammation that surrounds the yellowish core) and to protect the sore.

There is at least one benefit to old age besides social security and senior citizen discounts. The older you get, the fewer canker sores you get. But meanwhile a cannonade of cankers can make your mouth miserable. So here are a few escape routes. Experiment until you find one that works for you.

  • COMMIT CARBAMIDE PEROXIDE CANKERCIDE. Carbamide peroxide is the generic form of an over-the-counter medication that combines glycerin and peroxide. “The peroxide releases oxygen and cleans up the bacteria,” Dr. Goepp says. “The bubbles get into the tiniest crevices. The glycerine puts on a coating and helps protect the sore.” Brand names include Gly-oxide, Amosan, and Cankaid.
  • PUNISH ‘EM WITH POTASSIUM CHLORATE. Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University, suggests putting a teaspoon of potassium chlorate in a cup of water and rinsing the mouth with it several times a day. Do not swallow. “It’s an old Midwest remedy,” he says, “and it’s feebly antiseptic.”
  • BRING OUT THE ARTILLERY. Look for OTC canker sore medications that contain benzocaine, menthol, camphor, eucalyptol, and/or alcohol in a liquid or gel. They often sting at first, and most need repeated application because they don’t stick.
  • STICK TO YOUR GUMS. There are also pastes that form a protective “bandage” over the sore. To get pastes like Orabase to work, dry the sore with one end of a cotton swab, then immediately apply the paste with the other end. It will work only on beginning sores, however.
  • TRICK ‘EM WITH A WET TEA BAG. Several experts, among them Ohio dermatologist Jerome Z. Litt, M.D., recommend applying a wet, black tea bag to the ulcer. Black tea contains tannin, an astringent that “may pleasantly surprise you” with its pain-relieving ability, he says. Tanac is an OTC medication that contains tannin.
  • WASH YOUR MOUTH OUT. Dilute 1 tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide in a glass of water and swish it around in your mouth to disinfect the sore and speed healing, says Dr. Goepp. New Jersey registered dietitian Beverly D’Asaro has found her clients with cancer who get canker sores are helped by the mouthwash Folamint. It contains no stinging alcohol, but does contain healing aloe vera, folate, zinc, and vitamin C.
  • ATTACK WITH ALUM. Alum is the active ingredient in a styptic pencil, which your mother may have told you to dab on a sore that is just getting going. Alum is an antiseptic and pain reliever that can prevent the infection from getting worse, say doctors, but not truly abort a canker sore.
  • GET CREATIVE WITH MYLANTA. Don’t swallow your Mylanta or milk of magnesia. Instead, swish it around your mouth and allow it to protectively coat the sore. It may also have some antibacterial effect, Dr. Goepp says.
  • GIVE GOLDENSEAL A SEAL OF APPROVAL. Make a strong tea of goldenseal root (available at health food stores) and use it as a mouthwash. Or you can make a paste of it and apply it directly. “It’s antiseptic and astringent and is probably modestly effective,” Dr. Tyler says.
  • AVOID IRRITATION. Coffee, spices, citrus fruit, nuts high in the amino acid arginine (especially walnuts), chocolate, and strawberries irritate canker sores and cause them in some people. “If you get canker sores, you probably know darn well what you should stay away from,” Dr. Goepp says. You probably already know, too, to brush your teeth carefully.
  • TRY YOGURT EACH DAY. Dr. Litt says that eating 4 tablespoons of unflavored yogurt a day might help prevent canker sores by sending in helpful bacteria to fight off those dirty mouth bacteria. Look for yogurt that contains active cultures of Lactobacillus acidophilus.
  • BE ALL EARS. “You’re going to laugh when I tell you the typical Hoosier home remedy,” says Dr. Tyler. Just take a little earwax from your ear and apply it to the canker sore. It’s said to be a sure cure. It may have some antiseptic value, and it may protect the sore.”
  • BE VICTORIOUS WITH VITAMINS. Virginia dentist Craig Zunka, D.D.S., president of the Holistic Dental Association, recommends you squeeze vitamin E oil from a capsule onto your canker sore. Repeat several times a day to keep the tissue well-oiled. “And at the first tingle of a canker sore,” he says, take 500 milligrams of vitamin C with bioflavonoids three times a day for the next three days.
  • MEDICAL ALERT: STUBBORN SORES SHOULD BE CHECKED OUT. A canker sore should heal within two weeks. “If the sores last a long time, or you are unable to eat, speak, or sleep properly, you should see a doctor or dentist,” advises Robert Goepp, D.D.S., Ph.D. All can severely affect your health and daily life. You will probably be given prescription topical steroids and/or oral antibiotics to treat the disease itself, not just the infection.


Beverly D’Asaro, R.D., is a registered dietitian in private practice in Madison, New Jersey.

Robert Goepp, D.D.S., Ph.D., is a professor of oral pathology at the University of Chicago Medical Center and hospital in Illinois.

Jerome Z. Litt, M.D., is a dermatologist in private practice in Beachwood, Ohio, and is author of Your Skin: From Acne to Zits.

Harold R. Stanley, D.D.S., is a professor emeritus of dentistry at the University of Florida College of Dentistry in Gainesville.

Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., is a professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal. He also serves as a Prevention magazine adviser.

Craig Zunka, D.D.S., is in private practice in Front Royal, Virginia, and is president of the Holistic Dental Association.


Excerpted from “The Doctors Book of Home Remedies”
Copyright (c) 1993, 1994 Compton’s NewMedia Inc.

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