Don’t be fooled by a canker sore’s small size. These lesions can be painful and irritating. The good news is that many sores are short-lived, going away on their own within one to two weeks. (1) A canker sore doesn’t usually require a visit to your doctor, and if a sore only causes minor pain, you might forgo treatment altogether.
But when a canker sore sparks a nagging ache, or if the sore makes it difficult to talk or eat, you need fast relief and prompt healing. Read on to learn about 10 home remedies for canker sores:
1. Apply Over-the-Counter (OTC) Topical Gels to Reduce Irritation
Canker sores respond positively to OTC topical creams designed specifically for oral lesions. These products include active ingredients — such as benzocaine and lidocaine — which promote healing. (2)
Apply a cream or paste directly to the canker sore. This provides a protective layer over the sore until it heals, so that eating and drinking don’t cause further irritation.
2. Rinse With Antiseptic Mouthwashes to Clean the Area and Relieve Pain
Some palliative mouth rinses, like Rincinol, or numbing mouth rinses with lidocaine can be helpful, too, says Samantha Rawdin, DMD, a prosthodontist based in New York City.
For a severe canker sore, your doctor may prescribe a steroid mouthwash containing the ingredient dexamethasone. (2)
3. Make Your Own Salt or Hydrogen Peroxide Rinse
Rinsing your mouth with some things you probably already have at home can also relieve pain and irritation caused by a canker sore.
Hydrogen peroxide, for example, can minimize the amount of bacteria in your mouth. Mix one part hydrogen peroxide with one part water. Gargle the solution and then rinse out your mouth with water — don’t swallow hydrogen peroxide. (5)
Another option is a salt rinse. Dissolve 1 teaspoon (tsp) of salt in ½ cup of warm water. Gargle and then rinse out your mouth with water. Again, don’t swallow the salt solution.
A salt mixture helps dry out a canker sore so that it’ll heal faster. Repeat the rinse several times a day. (2)
4. Improve Your Oral Hygiene Habits, and Check the Ingredients in Products
Be gentle when brushing and flossing. Being too rough or using a hard-bristled toothbrush can cause further irritation, prolonging or worsening a canker sore. Switch to a soft-bristled toothbrush instead. (2)
Bear in mind that an ingredient in some mouthwashes and toothpastes — sodium lauryl sulfate — has been associated with repeated canker sores. Avoiding these products could reduce your number of outbreaks. (1)
Also, if your oral hygiene habits have been lacking lately, making improvements may also reduce bacteria in your mouth and speed healing. Brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss daily. See your dentist for cleanings at least every six months or twice a year. (3)
5. Take Vitamin Supplements for Nutritional Deficiencies
While the exact cause of canker sores is unknown, these ulcers are seen in people with nutritional deficiencies, including low levels of zinc, folic acid, and iron. (4)
“Optimizing nutrition is the first defense against recurrent canker sores,” says Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, RD, CDE, who is based in New York City. “Ensuring a well-balanced diet or adequate vitamin and supplementation if you’re a vegan or avoiding certain food groups is paramount in keeping your immune system healthy and functioning at its best.”
Frequent canker sores may also indicate a vitamin B12 deficiency. If so, other possible signs of this deficiency include: (7)
- Numbness or a tingling sensation in your hands, legs, or feet
- Balance problems
- Swollen tongue
- Decreased cognitive function (memory problems, brain fog, trouble concentrating)
Malkoff-Cohen also warns that a deficiency of B12 and iron prohibits proper regeneration of the mucosal lining of the cheeks and mouth, potentially triggering canker sores in some people.
A blood test can confirm or rule out nutritional deficiencies. If testing confirms an underlying problem, your doctor will discuss ways to boost your level.
Options include supplementation or increasing consumption of foods fortified with a particular nutrient or vitamin. This might include eating more fish, eggs, dairy products, poultry, and meat if you have B12 deficiency. (7)
6. Avoid Acidic, Spicy, or Salty Trigger Foods
Continuing to consume trigger foods can slow the healing process and exacerbate a canker sore. Avoid salty foods, acidic foods and drinks, and spicy foods until the sore heals, and then limit your intake of these to avoid repeated lesions. You should also limit hard, abrasive foods — crackers or toasted bread, for example — which can further irritate a canker sore. (3,8)
7. Suck on Ice to Reduce Pain and Inflammation
Pain and inflammation can make it difficult to eat, drink, or talk. Along with oral medication, take ibuprofen to reduce inflammation or suck on ice chips to temporarily numb the area around the sore. (2)
8. Use Aloe Vera Gel to Soothe the Area
Due to the anti-inflammatory and immunostimulating effect of aloe vera, the plant is often used to treat wounds and reduce pain.
According to a clinical trial study that included 40 patients, 2 percent aloe vera gel may decrease the frequency and occurrence of canker sores, and quickly reduce the size of these lesions. (9)
9. Try a Calming Chamomile Tea Compress
Chamomile is an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and a mild astringent. So it’s often used to treat a variety of conditions, such as ulcers, eczema, arthritis pain, hemorrhoids, the common cold, and infections. It’s also believed that chamomile may help treat canker sores, although more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of this remedy. (10)
If you choose to experiment with this herb for medicinal purposes, soak a chamomile tea bag in water and then apply it directly to the mouth sore. Or rinse your mouth with chamomile tea a few times a day.
10. Coat the Canker Sore With Milk of Magnesia
This medication is commonly used to relieve constipation, but it may also prove effective for canker sores, helping lesions heal faster, explains Jennifer Silver, DDS, a dentist based in Calgary, British Columbia. Apply a small amount directly to the lesion a few times a day. The medication will coat the canker sore, reducing irritation and pain. (2)
What to Do if the Canker Sore Isn’t Healing
Plenty of at-home remedies can help relieve pain and promote healing of canker sores, but if a sore doesn't improve within two weeks or becomes worse, see a doctor. Depending on the size and the depth of a lesion, you may need a prescription mouthwash or an oral steroid.