Mouth ulcers

Author: A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, January 2016.

What are mouth ulcers?

Mouth ulcers are common. They are one form of stomatitis. A mouth ulcer is damaged epithelium and its underlying lamina propria. Mouth ulcers may be due to trauma, irritation, radiation, infections, drugs, inflammatory disorders and unknown causes.

The most common presentation is with painful, recurrent aphthous stomatitis, also known as aphthosis, aphthae, aphthous ulceration and canker sores.

Patients may present to doctors or to dentists with mouth ulcers for assessment and treatment. They may also have cutaneous and systemic symptoms and signs.

Who gets mouth ulcers and how are they classified?

Males and females of all ages and races experience mouth ulcers.

Acute and recurrent infections

Acute single-episode ulceration

Recurrent/multiple ulcers

Chronic mouth ulcer

Differential diagnosis includes other inflammatory disorders in which there is no true ulceration, such as migratory glossitis/geographic tongue.

What causes aphthous mouth ulcers?

The cause or causes of aphthous mouth ulcers are not well understood. Current thinking is that the immune system is disturbed by some external factor and reacts abnormally against a protein in mucosal tissue.

Although most people with aphthous stomatitis are healthy, it may relate to:

In some patients, there are additional predisposing factors.

What are the clinical features of mouth ulcers?

A patient with mouth ulcers should be questioned and examined with a differential diagnosis in mind. In particular:

Recurrent aphthous ulceration

Recurrent aphthous ulcers are usually:

Recurrent aphthous ulcers are divided into 3 types:

Complications of mouth ulcers

Most mouth ulcers heal without problem. Consider biopsy of non-healing ulcers.

How are mouth ulcers diagnosed?

Mouth ulcers are usually easy to diagnose. Occasionally biopsy is performed, particularly if considering cancer. It should be taken from the indurated edge of an inflammatory ulcer or from an inflamed but non-ulcerated site.

If the patient has frequent, prolonged or large ulcers, or is unwell, the following tests may be done to assess general and gastrointestinal health.

Selected patients may undergo further assessment including endoscopy if there is suspicion of inflammatory bowel disease.

If specific toothpaste or food is thought to precipitate ulcers, allergy tests including prick tests, patch tests and specific IgE testing may be performed. The results can be difficult to interpret.

What is the treatment for mouth ulcers?

General measures

Symptomatic relief may be obtained from:

Local therapy

Nicotine-containing gum has been reported to be effective, but it is not recommended because it’s highly addictive and has many adverse effects (see smoking).

Systemic therapy

Systemic therapy is intended to reduce frequency of ulceration. A Cochrane review (2012) of systemic treatments for recurrent aphthous stomatitis was inconclusive. The following are reported to be useful in at least some patients.

Mouth ulcers are not preventable in all patients. However, some people can reduce the number and severity of their ulcers by ensuring plenty of rest and avoidance of known triggers.

What is the outlook for mouth ulcers?

The outlook depends on the type of mouth ulcers and their cause, if known.

There is a gradual tendency for recurrent aphthous stomatitis to become less severe in later life.

Related information

Make a donation

Donate Today

Help us to update and maintain DermNet New Zealand

History of DermNet NZ

Watch Dr Amanda Oakley presenting 'The History Of DermNet NZ' at The International Society Of Teledermatology.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
DermNet NZ Newsletter