Caring for Your Lips: A Guide to Cold Sores & Canker Sores

canker sores
by Ashley Grano

The mouth is a prominent facial feature that expresses emotion, literally articulating words and conveying messages. Therefore, when this key highly visual communicative outlet experiences a cold sore or canker sore, it can be embarrassing and uncomfortable.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 50 percent to 80 percent of U.S. adults experience the occasional or frequent cold sore outbreaks, aka oral herpes. Further, nearly 90 percent of adults have been exposed to the virus by age 50. While not a virus, canker sores are also a very common oral condition, experienced by more than half of the population, reports the American Academy of Oral Medicine.

Despite their prevalence, cold sores and canker sores can nevertheless cause the sufferer to become self-conscious and distracted. Fortunately, there are ways to help prevent future outbreaks as well as shorten the duration of existing outbreaks when properly addressed.

What is the difference between cold sores and canker sores?

Though they are similar in name and both affect the mouth, cold sores and canker sores are actually two distinct types of unpleasant conditions.

According to the Mayo Clinic, cold sores are also known as the oral herpes simplex virus, a highly contagious condition which causes tiny, fluid-filled lesions around the outside of the lips. While cold sores cannot be cured, medicine can accelerate healing and reduce the recurrence of outbreaks.

Canker sores, on the other hand, are painful sores that occur inside the mouth and are not contagious. The majority of canker sores resolve on their own within a week or two, says the Mayo Clinic.

What are the symptoms of cold sores and canker sores?

While both conditions can be painful, cold sore symptoms typically include soreness, tingling, ulcers, blisters, redness, and burning, reports WebMD. These painful sores can affect not only the lips, but also the gums, tongue, roof of the mouth, and inside of the cheeks. Fever and muscle aches may also be present.

Canker sores are usually limited to just a single painful mouth ulcer or can appear in clusters.

What causes cold sores and canker sores?

Cold sores are very contagious, and as a virus, can be easily spread via saliva (including intimate contact such as kissing or sharing drinks), or other skin-to-skin contact, such as unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. WebMD states that the virus can also lie dormant in the body and be triggered by causes such as the common cold, surgery, a weakened immune system, hormonal changes, and sunlight.

Canker sores, on the other hand, can be attributed to causes such as injury to the mouth, eating acidic or spicy foods, vitamin deficiencies, hormones, stress, or autoimmune disorders, says MedicineNet.

How to help care for cold sores and canker sores

Cold sores can be treated and prevented in several ways, with prescription antiviral medications one of the most popular and effective methods, suggests Healthline. Over-the-counter topical medications can also lessen the duration of an outbreak. Lemon balm and aloe vera are two widely accessible and affordable natural remedies that may help reduce redness of cold sores, as well as help to avoid future sores.  Regular use of sunscreen can also protect the lips, and should be used regularly for overall skin health, in addition to helping avoid cold sore outbreaks. As outbreaks can be triggered by stress, utilizing coping techniques such as meditation and exercise can help reduce stress-related triggers.

While canker sores are painful and unpleasant, they fortunately will clear on their own within a week or two. To expedite the process, there are several self-care practices that can be done at home. Using a salt mouth rinse can help reduce soreness and aid healing, and may be used in combination with over-the-counter gels, patches, or mouth rinses for best results, suggests Medical News Today. In addition, be sure to use a soft-bristle toothbrush while any sores are present, using caution while brushing to not further irritate the sore. Avoid eating very spicy, salty, or acidic foods, as these can delay healing. Do sip some chamomile tea with honey, as this combination has been said to be full of anti-inflammatory and anti-septic properties, which can support healing.

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