Snapshot of Mouth Sores, and Mouth Cancer

Joeph R. Anticaglia, MD
Medical Advisory Board

Mouth sores are tender or painful lesions that appear on the inside of your mouth. They can appear on the tongue, gums, inner cheeks, roof of the mouth, or be found on the inside of the lip. The lesions damage the mucous membrane, a delicate tissue that lines the inside of the mouth making it difficult to swallow, eat, and talk.

Most mouth sores are not dangerous, and heal on their own in 10 to 14 days without the need to see your physician. However, if the lesion persists for three week or more, it should be evaluated by your family doctor to take the necessary steps to rule out cancer. This article will highlight, take a snapshot of mouth sores and mouth cancer.

Mouth Sores and Mouth Cancer

  • Canker Sores
  • Cold Sores
  • Mouth Cancer

Canker Sores (Aphthous Ulcers)

Canker Sore (Ulcer) on tongue Wikimedia commons

Canker sores are the most common cause of mouth sores. The condition is characterized by recurrent ulcers involving the inside of the mouth. Initially, a person may experience a burning sensation, later when the ulcer is established — pain.

The lesion is described as having a yellowish, or whitish central area. It often appears as one ulcer with a tendency to recur at different times. They are not contagious, not caused by a virus, and are not precancerous. They are also called aphthous ulcers.

Risk Factors

Canker sores may be triggered by poorly fitting dentures, wearing braces, cheek biting, emotional stress, hormonal changes during menstrual cycle, smoking or use of smokeless tobacco, heavy drinkers, and certain foods.

Also, canker ulcers can be provoked by adverse reactions to drug medications such as penicillin or chemotherapy drugs, oral hygiene products, nutritional deficiencies in folic acid, iron, or vitamin B12. Furthermore, digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease, weakened immune system as in HIV, and genetic factors make some families more prone to get mouth ulcers

Home Remedies — Treatment

Mouth sores usually clear up by themselves within two weeks without the need to see your doctor. What follows are things you can do at home to reduce pain and discomfort making it easier to drink, eat and swallow and to help speed your recovery:

  • Avoid all tobacco products
  • Drink alcoholic beverages in moderation
  • Rinse your mouth out with warm, slightly salted water four times daily.
  • Brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush
  • Apply an analgesic over-the-counter gel to the sore areas
  • Note the oral hygiene products you’re using (toothpaste, mouth wash) for possible allergic reaction
  • When possible, avoid the risk factors above
  • Schedule regular checkups with your family doctor and dentist

Cold Sores (Oral Herpes, Fever Blisters)

Cold sore Note the blisters Wikimedia commons

Cold (herpes) Sores are fluid filled blisters that are located outside the mouth, often on and around the lips. They’re highly contagious, and can spread through saliva, skin-to-skin contact , or through sexual contact with an infected person.

They’re caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). Taking antiviral oral medications such as acyclovir, or the application of antiviral ointment may speed up the recovery of this infection. Cold sores are also known as fever blisters and oral herpes.

Mouth (Oral) Cancer

Diagnosis — Biopsy revealed squamous cell carcinoma
Credit Oral cancer images; Oral cancer foundation

Oral cancers can appear anywhere on the inside of the mouth including the roof of the mouth (palate) and the floor of the mouth (area below the tongue). Lip cancer is considered a type of mouth cancer and is most commonly found on the lower lip.

Approximately 7 out of 10 cases of mouth cancer is associated with smoking cigarettes or smokeless tobacco. Heavy drinking of alcoholic beverages increase the likelihood of having this type of cancer.

These mouth cancers can be painless and go undetected for many weeks to months. Once a mouth lesion has been identified, and if it persists for more than three weeks, one should make an appointment to see your family physician to diagnose the problem.

The majority of mouth lesions heal by themselves within two to three weeks. However, they can be a nuisance interfering with eating, and your daily activities. Home remedies, and over the counter products usually take care of the discomfort and pain caused by oral lesions.

In those instances when mouth lesions persist beyond three weeks, it’s prudent to obtain a biopsy to rule out a precancerous or cancerous lesion and start treatment early to get the best results.


Mucous membrane is also called the mucosa.


  1. NIH; Fever Blisters & Canker Sores; September 2021
  2. Overview: Cold sores; nformedHealth. org [Internet].Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, March 23, 2022
  3. Andrew Biello, et al; Laryngeal Botulinum Toxin Injection; StatPearls, April 17, 2023
  4. Josef Shargorodsky, MD, MPH, David C. Dugdale, MD; Mouth Sores; Medline Plus, 9/10/2023
  5. NIH; Oral Cancer; June 2023
  6. American Cancer Society; What Are Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers? March 23, 2021

This article is intended solely as a learning experience. Please consult your physician for diagnostic and treatment options.