Can you tell the difference between a canker sore and mouth cancer? Do you know the signs of gum disease? Get the facts…
Cold Sores: Also called fever blisters, you don’t get cold sores from fevers or colds but they can be triggered by them. The virus that causes cold sores is usually passed via a kiss, shared utensils, or other close contact. Over-the-counter creams and ointments may help discomfort and speed healing. Frequent sores may require a prescription. Cold sores are a top mouth problem. Other problems include canker sores, TMJ, bad breath, and mouth cancer.
Thrush: Caused by candida yeast, thrush is most common in older adults or babies. But a weakened immune system, antibiotics, diabetes, or certain medications — such as inhaled corticosteroids — can give candida a chance to grow wild. Wiping away the patches will cause soreness. See a doctor for a firm diagnosis.
Black Hairy Tongue: This painless condition occurs when the little bumps on your tongue grow long and trap bacteria that live in your mouth making the tongue look black and hairy. Causes can include antibiotic use, poor oral hygiene, smoking, drinking a lot of tea or coffee, and not producing enough saliva. Brushing the tongue and using a tongue scraper is usually all you need to treat it, though sometimes medication is necessary.
Canker Sores: No one knows what causes these small, painful blisters inside your mouth. Triggers include hypersensitivity, infection, hormones, stress, and not getting enough of some vitamins. Also called aphthous ulcers, canker sores can show up on the tongue, cheek, even your gums. They usually last a week or two. Persistent, severe canker sores can be treated with numbing creams, prescription drugs, or dental lasers.
Leukoplakia: Leukoplakia is a reaction to an irritant, like rough teeth, badly fitting dentures, smoking, and smokeless tobacco. It can show up as white patches or plaques in the mouth, is usually painless, and can’t be scraped off. Leukoplakia can also be a precancerous condition. Persistent patches or other changes in your mouth need a dentist’s evaluation.
Lichen Planus: A rare rash that shows up as lacy, white patches or red shiny bumps on the inside of the cheeks or tongue could be lichen planus. No one knows what causes it. Generally, mild lichen planus doesn’t need any treatment. If it causes pain or ulcers, it can be treated with oral and topical medication. Oral lichen planus can be chronic and may increase the risk for oral cancer. Lichen planus can also affect skin, scalp, nails, and genitals.
Geographic Tongue: When parts of your tongue are missing some of their small bumps, you end up with raised and lowered spots, giving your tongue a map-like appearance. The spots can change location, pattern, and size within minutes to hours. Geographic tongue is harmless and can come and go. It usually doesn’t need any treatment. If there’s pain, over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications can help.
Oral Cancer: A mouth sore that doesn’t go away. Unexplained numbness in the face, mouth, or neck. Problems chewing, speaking or swallowing. These are a few symptoms of oral cancer. Causes can include smoking cigarettes and using smokeless tobacco, drinking heavily, overexposure to the sun, and a family history of cancer. Oral cancer has also been linked to the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Don’t let fear keep you from the doctor — oral cancer that is caught early is treatable and curable.
TMJ: A problem with the jaw called temporomandibular joint syndrome can cause severe pain in the jaw, face, ear, or neck. Clenching, tooth grinding, or injury can all cause TMJ syndrome, but the results are often the same: pain, headaches, dizziness, even trouble swallowing. Treatment may involve rest, moist heat, a mouth guard, medication, or surgery.
Chipped Teeth: Munching on ice or hard candies, grinding or clenching teeth, even exposing teeth to heat and cold can lead to chips, cracks, and breaks in your teeth. Tiny chips or cracks may not be a bother. But anything more could lead to pain or permanent tooth damage. Your dentist can offer dental bonding, tooth contouring, porcelain veneers, and crowns to fix badly damaged teeth.
Amalgam Tattoo: Ever notice a small blue-gray “stain” in a soft part of your mouth after dental work? Called amalgam tattoos, they occur when a tiny piece of amalgam filling gets embedded in your cheek or gum. The silver in the amalgam leaches into your mouth’s soft tissue, resulting in what looks a bit like a tiny tattoo. Amalgam tattoos pose no harm. But if the blue-gray spot grows or changes color, there is a good possibility it may not be an amalgam tattoo. Ask your dentist to check it out.
Gum Disease: When periodontal (gum) disease develops, bacteria in plaque accumulate along the gum line. Gingivitis is the first stage of gum disease. Symptoms include red, puffy, and bleeding gums. Proper oral hygiene can help prevent periodontal disease. Smoking, poor diet, and stress can make it worse.
Periodontitis: The next stage of gum disease is periodontitis, or gum infection. Increased inflammation causes the gums to recede, forming pockets between the teeth and gums. These pockets trap tartar, plaque, and food debris that eventually lead to infection and abscesses. Advanced gum disease damages the bone that supports teeth and is one of the leading causes of tooth loss in adults. See your dentist to treat receding gums.
Aspirin Burn: Ever let an aspirin nestle in your cheek, near an aching tooth? While you may hope this relieves pain faster, instead the acid in the aspirin burns a white, rough lesion into your gums or cheek. Preventing aspirin burn is simple — swallow those pain relievers! Treatment for aspirin burn is just as basic: Time. Simple burns should heal in about two weeks.
Cavities, Abscesses, Discoloration: Flossing and brushing daily and regular dental checkups help prevent problems like cavities, abscesses, and tooth discoloration. Don’t mess around with a severe toothache. Dental infections can spread to the face, skull, and even to the bloodstream. See your dentist as soon as possible if your tooth aches or if you have a fever, earache, or pain when you open your mouth wide.
Bad Breath: Unbrushed teeth have food particles around them that promote bacteria and cause bad breath. Persistent bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth may be from continuous breathing through your mouth, dry mouth, tooth decay, a sign of gum disease, or even diabetes. Fight bad breath by brushing your teeth and tongue, drinking water, and avoiding food triggers. See your dentist if bad breath persists.
“Lie” Bumps: According to an old wives’ tale, telling a lie causes a bump on the tongue. So-called “lie bumps” or transient lingual papillitis are common even if you tell only the truth. These small, harmless bumps go away on their own after a few days, but they may be uncomfortable. Their cause is a mystery it could be a reaction to a food or a minor trauma like biting the tongue. You don’t need to treat them, although oral anesthetics may relieve discomfort.
(Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD)