It’s easy to mistake canker for cold sores. They’re both located in or around the mouth and they can look like small white blisters. But they have very different causes. Understanding what distinguishes canker sores from cold sores means you can get the right treatment for a speedy healing process.
Cold sores (also known as fever blisters) are small, white blisters that usually show up on your lip or around your mouth. In the early stages when a cold sore develops you may notice some redness and a tingling sensation. Eventually, the sores blister and a crust will form on top.
It takes an average of 10 to 14 days for cold sores to heal completely.
Contrary to what their name suggests, they are not related to the common cold. But having a cold could weaken the immune system and provoke an outbreak of fever blisters.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and more rarely HSV-2. HSV is incredibly infectious and spreads easily through contact with the skin, saliva and other bodily fluids.
Approximately 3.7 billion worldwide are carriers of HSV-1. Some of them may never develop a single cold sore whilst others suffer frequent outbreaks. There are certain triggers that can bring about cold sores:
The symptoms of a cold sore can include:
Cold sores usually go away all by themselves. It takes up to 2 weeks for them to heal completely. But there are medications and home remedies to speed up the healing process.
Make sure you start treatment at the first sign of a cold sore emerging (usually within 48 hours). The longer you delay medical therapy, the more time it will take for symptoms to subside.
You can get over-the-counter antiviral creams such as Zovirax (acyclovir) and Denavir (penciclovir). These can be applied 2 to 5 times a day and usually offer quick relief.
If you’re prone to cold sores and get them multiple times a year, your doctor may prescribe oral antiviral medications such as valacyclovir or famciclovir. A single dose repeated once after 12 hours is usually enough to speed up the healing process.
When you’ve got cold sores, your immune system is working hard to fight the infection. You can help speed up the healing process by:
Home remedies that may be beneficial against cold sores include:
There is no cure or vaccine for HSV-1 and even the best medication and home remedies won’t work wonders. Although they can reduce the average duration by 2 days, the best way to avoid cold blisters is to prevent them.
So, what can you do to prevent cold sores?
Canker sores, also referred to as ulcers or aphthae, are painful, shallow lesions on the inside of the mouth. They are red or white in color. Canker sores are not contagious and usually go away after a week or two.
The main difference to cold sores is that they are not caused by HSV and they are not located on the outside of the mouth. However, you can get canker sores on the skin on the inside of the lower or upper lip.
Canker sores can have lots of different causes including:
Medical conditions such as celiac disease, HIV, Behcet disease and IBS could make you more prone to canker sores.
As with cold sores, a healthy immune system is vital to remedy ulcers quickly.
When you have canker sores, the most important thing you can do is practice good oral hygiene.
One research study found that patients applying mouth gel containing hyaluronic acid (e.g. Gengigel) saw a decrease in ulcer size after just 3 days compared to those rinsing with hyaluronic acid mouthwash.
Canker sores usually go away by themselves after 1 or 2 weeks. If they last longer, you should consult a dentist or doctor. They may prescribe a steroid paste or prescription mouthwash to treat the ulcer.
Though it’s rare, some patients have experienced canker sores at the back of their throats or on their tonsils. These may look bigger than usual canker sores and can cause scarring. They are more difficult to treat because they are harder to reach. Speak to a doctor if you’re having difficulty treating your canker sore.
Sometimes canker sores aren’t easily preventable. For example, you may accidentally bite your lip whilst chewing or you may experience an injury that causes damage to the soft tissues on the inside of your mouth.
But if you get ulcers more than once or twice a year, you should:
You can easily tell the difference between a cold sore or a canker sore depending on their location (outside or inside of the mouth) and whether they are raised or flat.
Cold sores will usually look like bumps and after a week a crust should form on top of them.
Canker sores are flat ulcers that will turn red as they begin to heal.
But whether you have cold sores or ulcers, they are both important signs that your immune system response is poor and shouldn’t be ignored.