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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 painless mouth ulcer or a canker sore with no or slight pain, visit your dentist for a checkup to be safe.

Stages of a cancer lesion: Cancerous lesions typically do not heal even after a few weeks and, in fact, may increase, resulting in large, lumpy clusters in the mouth.

Characteristics of a canker sore

Appearance: Flat oval-shaped wounds with a red border and yellowish-gray pus-filled center.

Pain: Canker sores are often painful, but the pain subsides as they heal.

Stages of a canker sore: A canker sore first presents as raised red patches and has a burning or prickling sensation. Then, it develops into a yellow-gray ulcer with a red ring surrounding it like a halo. Most pain is experienced during this stage.

It takes about 7 to 14 days for the wound to go through these stages before healing begins and healthy tissue gradually closes over the sore. As the ulcer heals, the pain goes away.

Importance of oral cancer screenings

Canker sores and oral cancer are caused by different factors and warrant specific treatments. Determining which type you have is vital through oral cancer screenings. These are fast, easy, non-invasive, and can usually be done by your dentist or dental hygienist as part of a routine dental checkup. Yes, it’s really that easy!

During the exam, which takes a few minutes to perform, your dentist examines the inside of your mouth to check for white or red patches. They may also feel the tissues in the mouth, throat, and neck to check for lumps or other abnormalities. If they think that you have a cancerous lesion, your dentist will refer you to a physician for further tests.

While frequent canker sores are troublesome and may signify an underlying problem, it is not necessarily a sign of cancer. Although there is no cure for canker sores, your dentist can recommend solutions or medication for pain management as it heals. For instance, using a hydrogen peroxide mouth rinse can boost healing by keeping the mouth clean and free of bacteria.

Knowing the differences can also help you and your dentist understand the underlying factors causing frequent sores.

Any mouth wound, either resulting from cancer or canker sore, can significantly affect your everyday life. Imagine getting a canker sore on the floor of the mouth—ouch!! We use our mouths daily to eat, drink, and speak, so keeping it healthy with religious dental care at home and visits to your dentist is so important.

You can alleviate lots of stress and anxiety by learning to distinguish between canker sores vs cancer. Appearance, pain, notable characteristics and the time it takes for the wounds to heal can help you to determine whether it is a canker sore or mouth cancer. Regardless, schedule an appointment with your dentist for an oral cancer screening to confirm the diagnosis early and ease your mind.

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