Cavities, yellow teeth and gum disease aren’t the only dental problems to worry about when it comes to your mouth. Soft tissue issues, such as sores and infections, can also crop up from time to time. While most aren’t serious, some can be uncomfortable and may even warrant a call or visit to your dentist. Here, four conditions that can occur and what to do about them.
What it is: These small, flat, grayish white ulcers have a red border of inflamed tissue. “They can be pretty painful,” says Maria Lopez Howell, D.D.S., a consumer advisor spokesperson for the American Dental Association. The sores appear on the tongue and sides of the mouth.
What causes it: “No one knows,” says Howell. One theory is that stress may be a culprit. But so can trauma. “If you bite your tongue, you can end up with a sore,” says Howell. Scraping the inside of your mouth with a piece of crusty bread, for instance, or brushing too hard can also trigger the sores.
How to treat: “Stay away from things that irritate it,” says Howell. Among them: spicy, salty or acidic foods, such as citrus. Applying an over-the-counter topical anesthetic to the sore or rinsing your mouth with an antimicrobial mouthwash may provide relief while you’re waiting for nature to take its course. (Ask your dental health professional or pharmacist to recommend a product.) Luckily, canker sores usually heal within seven to 10 days; if they don’t clear up within two weeks, see your dentist.
What it is: These whitish fluid-filled blisters appear on soft tissues in the mouth–but they can also erupt on or around the lips and even under the nose or on the chin. “They’re quite painful and quite contagious,” says Howell.
What causes it: Though colds can trigger an eruption, the cold virus doesn’t cause cold sores. Instead, blame the herpes simplex one virus. Once you’re infected, the virus lies dormant in your body. “Whenever the immune system is compromised, people with the virus can get an occasional eruption of these blisters,” says Howell. Even sunlight or acidic foods, which irritate and stress the immune system, can bring them on.
How to treat: Typically, it takes about a week for the cold sore to clear up. To ease discomfort during an eruption, try an over-the-counter topical anesthetic. (Your pharmacist or dentist can suggest one.) If you’re prone to cold sores, your dentist may prescribe a topical or oral anti-viral medication to use when you feel a sore coming on. It can’t prevent an eruption, but can shorten the outbreak, says Howell.
What it is: A thick, flat white patch of whitish tissue caused by an overgrowth of cells that can occur anywhere in the mouth.
What causes it: Traumatic irritation, explains Howell. “We see this if someone has an ill-fitting denture or bridge or has a tobacco habit of any kind,” she explains. Even chewing on the inside of your cheek can cause it. It doesn’t usually hurt nor is it contagious.
How to treat: Remove the irritant. Get your dentures refitted, for instance, or stop smoking or chewing tobacco. Depending upon how long the irritation has been occurring, it may take from two weeks to a few months for the leukoplakia to clear up. Your dentist will monitor the patch and, if it doesn’t go away, perform a biopsy to rule out oral cancer.
What it is: Also called oral thrush, candidiasis is a smooth, pinkish-red patch that typically appears on the tongue or in the back of the mouth.
What causes it: A fungal, or yeast, infection. “A lot of the time people develop fungal infections due to a weak immune system,” says Howell. For example, people who have diabetes may be vulnerable to dental health problems like candidiasis. Taking antibiotics can also trigger a yeast infection. But the infection can appear in people who don’t clean their dentures regularly, as well. “Yeast likes the mouth because it is warm and moist,” says Howell.
How to treat: In healthy people, the infection may clear up in about a week or so. If dirty dentures are the culprit, clean them and see your dentist regularly for professional cleanings as well. If the infection doesn’t improve, your dentist may prescribe medication, such as anti-fungal mouthwash or lozenges.