Commonly termed canker sores, aphthous ulcers, or aphthous stomatitis, have been the focus of study and research for many years, although the exact etiology of the lesions has yet to be identified. Categorized as an idiopathic disease, aphthous ulcers are frequently misdiagnosed, treated incorrectly, or simply ignored.
Precipitating factors include trauma, salivary gland dysfunction, stress, genetic predisposition, local infections, nutritional deficiencies, GI disorders, systemic disorders, food allergy or hypersensitivity, hormonal fluctuations, and chemical exposure.
The diagnosis of aphthous ulcers (canker sores) is primarily clinical. Patients typically describe a prodromal stage of a burning or pricking sensation of the oral mucosa 1-2 days before the ulcer appears.
Aphthous ulcers occur on areas of the mouth in which the mucosa is nonkeratinized and loosely attached, particularly the buccal mucosa, the labial mucosa, the floor of the mouth, the ventral surface of the tongue, and the soft palate. Ulcers may appear as single or multiple lesions, and they are easily distinguished from primary or secondary viral infections, bacterial infections (eg, necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis), dermatologic conditions (lichen planus, cicatricial pemphigoid, pemphigus), and traumatic injuries (contusions, lacerations, burns) by the healthy appearance of adjacent tissues and the lack of distinguishing systemic features.
The diagnosis of aphthous ulcers (canker sores) is usually based on the history and clinical presentation. No laboratory procedures are available for definitive diagnosis.
- In patients with severe recurrent aphthous ulcers (RAUs), or canker sores, the clinical picture should guide laboratory testing. CBC count, a chemistry panel, and nutritional workup may be necessary.
- Patients with suspected malabsorption or a nutritional deficiency should undergo immediate screening. Consider screening in patients presenting with a history of recurrent aphthous ulcers (canker sores) lasting 6 months or longer.
Treatment and Management
The primary goals of medical therapy in patients with aphthous ulcers (canker sores) are pain relief, maintenance of fluid and nutrition intake, early resolution, and prevention of recurrence. Most patients with minor or herpetiform aphthae should be treated empirically before extensive and costly studies are initiated. Treatment of recurrent aphthous ulcers (canker sores) typically includes anti-inflammatory and/or symptomatic therapy.
High-potency corticosteroids applied locally 2-4 times daily may be successful in promoting healing and shortening the course of recurrent aphthous ulcers (canker sores), especially if applied early in the development of the lesions.Topical preparations such as mouthwashor gels are preferred because they limit the amount of medication delivered and thus reduce systemic adverse effects. Remember that corticosteroids increase the risk of candidiasis and other secondary infections.
Benzocaine is the most commonly used anesthetic agent, applied for temporary relief with cotton-tipped applicator on an as needed basis (usually before meals).
Lidocaine 2% gel (by prescription only) can also be used, but can also cause toxicity in children.