closeup of toothpaste on a toothbrush

Q. My husband has canker sores in his mouth all the time. The doctors we have seen say it is not curable; he just has to live with it.

What can you recommend for easing the pain? We have tried many topical remedies plus some prescription drugs. He is not sleeping well due to the pain and he needs relief.

A. We have collected many remedies for canker sores (aphthous ulcers) over the last few decades. They include L-lysine, buttermilk, sauerkraut juice, green beanskiwi fruit and even watermelon. Others have found that taking a supplement of 1000 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily can diminish the suffering from canker sores.

Milk of Magnesia

One reader wrote about milk of magnesia:

“My canker sores were so bad that it hurt to close my mouth and swallow. I would drool on myself.

“I went to a doctor who told me I needed to balance my digestive system. He recommended putting chewable milk of magnesia tablets directly on the sores. (Don’t overdo it–it’s a laxative.)

“Within 6 or 8 hours all the pain went away, and the sores themselves healed in a few days.”

Aloe Vera

Research shows that a gel containing aloe vera and myrrh extracts can also help heal canker sores quickly (Journal of Oral Pathology & Medicine, July, 2014).

SLS-Free Toothpaste

Many readers report that avoiding sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), a wetting agent found in many toothpastes, is a helpful preventive tactic. Here’s one story from Al:

“Years ago I was plagued with multiple canker sores at any given time. It was awful! I went to several doctors and dentists and most concluded in was a viral infection and gave me meds.

“Nothing worked until someone in passing (a hairdresser I think?) mentioned a possible link between SLS and canker sores. I switched to toothpaste without SLS and voila! No more canker sores.

“If I accidentally use a mouthwash or toothpaste that has SLS, I get a canker sore. My fave brands have been Sensodyne (check the labels as some have SLS and some don’t), and there is a new one from Crest without SLS too.”

C. Foreman offered this experience, also featuring a Sensodyne brand toothpaste:

“I battled canker sores for about three years, typically getting breakouts every 2 or 3 weeks. When they would arise I would get huge sores on my cheeks and gums as well as blisters on the back of my tongue.

“My doctor insisted that they were stress related and that I needed to lower my stress level. However, my 9 year old was also suffering from sores at least once a month.

“I finally found that Sensodyne Pronamel was SLS free. Neither of us have had a sore in nearly 6 months now.

“I will never use another paste with SLS. It’s amazing how such a simple switch has made such a big difference.

There is a list of other SLS-free products at slsfree.net.

Diet

It may also be worthwhile to analyze reactions to diet. Some people find that reactions to certain foods can trigger canker sores, as reader LB noted:

“In a much-discussed series of articles in the NYT last year, Mark Bittman suggested that canker sores may be related to a food intolerance (for him specifically, it appeared to be dairy products). It’s anecdotal but something to think about.”

Celiac Disease

In addition, canker sores might be signaling a gluten intolerance, especially celiac disease. Reader CPMT pointed this out on our site:

“I just read an article about people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease often have problems with canker sores and angular cheilitis.”

Since celiac disease has many other serious implications for health, it would make sense to ask your husband’s physician to do a test to rule this possibility out. You can learn more about celiac disease as well as non-celiac gluten sensitivity from our hour-long interview with one of the world’s leading experts on this condition, Alessio Fasano, MD.

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  1. Carol
    Ontario
    Reply

    I have endured cankers across the rim of my tongue off and on over the past 15 yrs. The ulcerations followed the neurological pathway on the tongue and became quite predictable that one ulcer would lead to multi numbers of them. The pain is horrendous – can’t eat, sleep or barely speak. Sometimes lysine was slowly helpful, sometimes probiotics shortened the time span. I have often been told that it is not herpes. Hate to tell you, – but it is HERPES. It finally infected my eye. My new opthamologist knew what it was right away as he has seen it many times and knows how to treat it. I took antivirals and both the eye and the tongue healed within less than 48 hrs. Generally the mouth sores endured for 3 weeks and longer. I now have a refillable RX for whenever the buggers return and it works. The virus hides dormant for years in the Trigeminal nerve and can trigger in the mouth, the sinus or the eye decades after the first infection.

  2. Megan
    NC
    Reply

    I have had canker sores all my life. Sometimes would be worse than others. I tried many things, but the thing that literally made them disappear was changing my toothpastes. Some thing in most toothpaste creates these cankers sores. However, for me it isn’t the SLS because I tried many SLS-free toothpastes and they didn’t work.

    But two toothpastes do work for me: Squiggle and Burt’s Bees. Both are SLS-free, but they must be free of whatever other ingredient my body doesn’t like too. I’m with Judy on the Squiggle recommendation. (Burt’s bees was worked for the canker sores, but my dentist said my teeth didn’t look as clean after using that.) Full disclosure, I very rarely will get a minor version of a canker sore if I bite/injure my mouth. The toothpaste change was a lifesaver!

  3. Bruce
    Seattle, WA
    Reply

    When I get a canker, I gargle with a solution of 1/2 tsp of salt with 1/2 Tbsp of baking soda dissolved in water, used by hospitals for people with thrush (candida). I also use commercial Rincinol, which soothes without numbing and helps heal by creating a barrier over the canker.

  4. Nancy
    Buenos Aires
    Reply

    Years ago in Prevention magazine I read that brewers yeast helps. It worked for me. Let a tablet dissolve in contact with the canker sore.

  5. doc josh
    Wisconsin
    Reply

    I am a dentist. Here’s the one thing I tell every patient who gets canker sores…
    Change your toothpaste! Buy a toothpaste that has no sodium laurel sulfate (SLS).
    SLS is a detergent and is the main ingredient in nearly every hair shampoo! Why our toothpastes contain SLS is still a mystery to me. SLS disrupts the balance of your mouth and for some people that imbalance allows the tiniest aberration in your oral cavity to morph into a canker sore. I haven’t had a canker sore in years after changing my toothpaste.
    Weleda, Burt’s Bees, Jason and Dr. Ken’s all produce SLS-free toothpastes.

    • L. Watts
      Upland, CA
      Reply

      Me too! I used to get them somewhat seasonally, after eating acidic fruit, or after accidentally biting the inside of my mouth. Have not had a canker sore after changing to a non SLS toothpaste. This may not be the cure for canker sores for everyone, but it is easy enough to try, and won’t hurt.

  6. Kathy
    NC
    Reply

    I suffered from canker sores for years and tried everything…nothing worked until I went on a low carb diet. I have not had any problems since.

    • Nancy
      Buenos Aires
      Reply

      I agree! I had canker sores occasionally as a child, but practically never now that I limit sugar and carbs.

  7. booboolovin@yahoo.com
    GP, Texas
    Reply

    Try vitamin B-1, L-lysine and zinc supplements. My theory about these sores is they never appear until your immune system is lowered. These three supplements boost that. Works every time for me. These also work great for shingles when Tea Tree Oil is applied externally to the sores. Best if taken when the symptoms first appear.

  8. ebm
    florida
    Reply

    I get sores on side of my tongue and tip and canker sores when eating too many sweets and carbs. Am mostly wheat free re. diet. Eating a kiwi and holding it against the sore heals them in a day. Kiwi tastes salty to me and is said to be rich in C and magnesium.

    Nothing works better for me.

  9. Dolores
    Green Bay, WI
    Reply

    I found that if I drink too much soda pop (I like drinking diet colas, one can a day) I get canker sores which are very painful. Solution: I don’t drink the soda every day. I space them so that the sores don’t have a chance to form. I figured the acid must be doing it.

  10. WP
    CA
    Reply

    For years I gargled with Listerine on the recommendation of my dentist. Canker sores went away. When I stopped the daily Listerine, occasional canker sores returned. I used a cotton ball soaked with Listerine twice a day on the canker sore and that worked. I rarely get canker sores now, but I use coconut oil if a canker sore starts. This works, too. Both Listerine and coconut oil are anti-microbial.

  11. lcf
    florida
    Reply

    Try using chewable Lactaid pills; swish around in your mouth for a minute or so before swallowing. Relief is just around the corner, in less than 24 hours.

  12. Donnie
    USA
    Reply

    I used to have really bad canker and mouth sores. I have Celiac and food allergies, I avoid all gluten, and my food allergens, and have no more canker sores. In addition, I also need to take B-complex, extra B-12 vitamins and other supplements to avoid having burning mouth problems. Nickel in dental work can cause mouth sores in someone allergic to nickel. Many times there is a cause of the canker and other mouth sores that can be found and treated or cured.

  13. Mary
    Reply

    If I don’t take Zinc as a separate nutrient, I will get a sore on the tip of my tongue. With zinc, that happens very seldom.

    It probably depends on what a body needs. Mine needs it.

  14. Lori Earle
    United States
    Reply

    This is what cured my canker sores: make a thick paste of baking soda and water, and then apply it to the sore on the inside of your mouth. Keep it there as long as you can (10-15 min) and then rinse. Do this 3-4 times a day, for approximately 3 days.

  15. Judy DeRose
    Bloomsburg PA
    Reply

    I had suffered for years with canker sores in my mouth, but have had success by eliminating all toothpaste containing SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate). I am using the toothpaste made by Squigle as it has no SLS or flavorings that are irritating. Pronamel has some toothpaste without SLS but the flavoring is irritating to me as well. I also just learned that omeprazole long term use may cause mouth sores, so I am asking my doctor to help wean me off that drug.

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