Cold sores as well as canker sores are two of the most common types of mouth sores. Although they are similar in certain respects, there are also some distinctive features that set them apart.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the difference between cold sores as well as canker sores. We’ll also explore the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for each type of sore. By the end, you should have a better idea of which type of sore you’re dealing with—and how to treat it effectively.
What is the Difference Between Cold Sores & Canker Sores?
The main difference between cold sores & canker sores is that cold sores are caused by a virus, while canker sores are not. Cold sores usually occur outside of the mouth, on the lips, cheeks, or nose. They start as small blisters that eventually break open and crust over.
Canker sores, on the other hand, form inside the mouth—on the tongue, gums, or inner cheeks. They are small, painful ulcers that can make eating and talking difficult. Canker sores are not contagious like cold sores—but they can be triggered by stress, fatigue, or certain foods.
What are the Causes of Cold Sores & Canker Sores?
As we mentioned, cold sores are caused by a virus—specifically, the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). HSV is a very common virus that can be spread through direct contact with an infected person. Once you have HSV, it stays in your body for life—and it can cause cold sores to recur periodically.
Canker sores, on the other hand, have no known cause. However, there are several factors that may contribute to their development. These include stress, fatigue, hormonal changes, nutritional deficiencies, certain foods (such as citrus fruits or spicy foods), mouth injuries, etc. In some cases, canker sores may also be hereditary.
How are Cold Sores & Canker Sores Diagnosed?
Because cold sores as well as canker sores share some similar symptoms, it can be difficult to diagnose them without a professional evaluation. If you’re not sure which type of sore you have, your best bet is to see a doctor or dentist. They will be able to take a look at your mouth and make a diagnosis based on the location, appearance, and other symptoms.
In some cases, your doctor may also order a viral culture or blood test to confirm that you have HSV. This is usually only necessary if you have a particularly severe cold sore or if you get them frequently.
How are Cold Sores Treated?
There is no cure for HSV infection—cold sore outbreaks can only be treated symptomatically. However, there are several things you can do to speed up healing and reduce pain during an outbreak:
1. Apply a topical cream or ointment: This can help to soothe pain and promote healing.
2. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever: This can help to reduce pain and inflammation.
3. Apply a lip balm or cream: This can help to protect your lips from further irritation.
4. Apply a cold compress: This can help to reduce pain and swelling.
5. Avoid triggers: If you know what triggers your cold sores (such as stress or certain foods), try to avoid them.
How are Canker Sores Treated?
Most of the canker sores that are mild will go away by themselves without treatment in 7–10 days. But there are a few things you can do to speed up the healing process and lessen the pain felt during an outbreak:
1. Apply a topical cream or ointment: Use a topical cream or ointment that contains benzocaine or lidocaine. These ingredients help to numb the area and provide relief from pain.
2. Use a mouthwash: Use a mouthwash that contains oxygenating agents such as hydrogen peroxide. These agents help to kill bacteria and promote healing.
3. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever: This can help to reduce pain and inflammation.
When Should I See a Doctor?
You should see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
-It is causing you pain or interrupting your daily activities.
-It is not healing within 2 weeks.
-If you have a cold sore or canker sore that is accompanied by a fever.
-If you have a cold sore or canker sore that is accompanied by other symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes.
-If you are pregnant and have a cold sore.
-If you have a weakened immune system and have a cold sore.
-If it is particularly large or severe.
-To prevent the spread of HSV, avoid sharing utensils, towels, or other personal items with someone who has a cold sore.
-To prevent canker sores, avoid trigger foods and drinks, brush your teeth gently, and use a soft-bristled toothbrush.
-If you have a cold sore, avoid kissing or other close contact with others until it has healed completely.
-If you have a canker sore, avoid spicy or acidic foods that can irritate the sore.
-Practice good oral hygiene by brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing daily.
-Eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
-Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
-Avoid smoking and using other tobacco products.
-Manage stress through relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation.
-If you get cold sores or canker sores frequently, talk to your doctor about ways to prevent them.
Cold Sores vs. Canker Sores: What’s the Difference? In short, cold sores are caused by viruses, while canker sores are not. Cold sores usually occur outside of the mouth, while canker sores usually occur inside the mouth. You can also check our article on Cold Sores vs. Herpes.
Cold sores are contagious, while canker sores are not. Canker sores may take several weeks to cure, while cold sores typically disappear on their own within a week or two.
There are several things you can do to speed up healing and reduce pain for both cold sores as well as canker sores. If you have any concerns regarding either type of sore, be sure to see a doctor.
And remember, practice good oral hygiene and eat a balanced diet to help prevent either type of sore from occurring in the first place!