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Canker sores vs cancer: When to consider a screening

Canker sores vs cancer, how can you tell them apart? While they share similar symptoms, a usually painless canker sore typically heals on its own within a few weeks—any longer than this is undoubtedly a cause for concern.

My dear patients, I urge you never to wait until it’s too late to get any oral ulcers or cold sores checked out. Because if it is indeed mouth cancer, early detection can make a whole lot of difference to the stage and severity of the disease. Delaying a diagnosis can also affect treatment options and outcomes. Even if it turns out just to be a regular mouth or cold sore, they are still often painful and can interfere with your quality of life, so you’ll want to soothe them immediately.

This post explores the difference between mouth ulcer and cancer and why regular oral cancer screenings are necessary.

Oral cancer vs canker sore: the main differences

With an estimated 53,000 people diagnosed yearly in the US, oral cancer is on the rise. On the bright side, the likelihood of survival is over 68% if the disease is caught early. Like most cancers, it is difficult to pinpoint a cause. Cancerous lesions in the mouth can form due to factors such as tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, excessive sun exposure to the lips, human papillomavirus (HPV), or a compromised immune system.

According to the American Dental Association, canker sores are painful, small ulcers that form on the inside of the mouth, the lining of the lip or the cheek. They’re pretty common, affecting about 20% of the population. They may appear due to physical trauma, like when you accidentally bite down on your lip or tongue due to diseases (celiac disease, chickenpox, ulcerative colitis) or deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals.

Let's compare the main characteristics of canker sores vs cancer below:

Characteristics of oral cancer lesions

Appearance: Lumpy, patchy mixture of white and red bruises. While canker sores can bleed from being grazed or poked, bleeding is a more common factor in mouth cancer.

Since cancer cells can cause nerve or blood vessel damage in the mouth, feeling numbness is also really common. Any swelling, pain or stiffness in the jaw can be a sign of oral cancer.

Pain: Mouth cancer sores in their early stages hardly ever cause lingering pain. If you have a pai