A little irritation develops near or inside your mouth, and you start to wonder what’s wrong. It hurts a lot more than it should, considering the small size. It seems to last awhile, and you can’t figure out whether it’s a cold sore or canker sore.
So, what exactly is the difference between a cold sore and a canker sore? Let’s dive in. Fortunately, it’s not too complicated.
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Cold Sore vs. Canker Sore
The location of the sore can often help you identify if it’s a canker sore or a cold sore. Cold sores often appear around the lips and the outside of the mouth, whereas canker sores only occur within the mouth.
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What Is a Cold Sore?
Outside of the mouth is where you’ll find a cold sore, sometimes called a fever blister. It usually appears as one or several red, blistered areas on your lips. The blisters often will break open causing an open sore, or ulcer.
Within a few days, a scab will form. Some areas of the mouth take longer to heal because they frequently stretch when you talk, eat, or yawn.
Symptoms depend if you have a new infection of herpes simplex virus (HSV), which causes the sores, or if you’ve had the virus for a while. If you have a new infection, your symptoms may include:
- Burning or tingling and the development of sores on and around the lips and mouth
- Sore throat or pain when swallowing
- Swollen lymph nodes
If you have had HSV for a while, you may experience cold sores periodically. Early symptoms may include burning, itching, or stinging around the mouth prior to the sores forming.
What Causes Cold Sores?
What causes cold sores is HSV and, unfortunately, the sores are contagious when they’re open. The virus can be spread through the following:
- Sharing utensils, drinks, towels
- Close person-to-person contact such as kissing
- Using someone else’s lip balm or lipstick
The herpes virus stays in your body and can cause cold sore outbreaks at any time. Often, they’re triggered by things such as extreme temperatures, exhaustion, stress, or a weakened immune system.
When you feel a cold sore coming on, usually indicated by a tingling or itching on the affected area, consider anything out of the ordinary that you’ve been experiencing, as this could be your trigger. Once you figure out what your triggers are, you can try to avoid them. Use sunblock if a cold sore is caused by sun exposure or take a few minutes to relax if stress is a trigger for you.
How to Treat a Cold Sore
While there’s no cure for cold sores, treatment can help to shorten the lifespan or weaken the severity. Some people start treatment when they first notice symptoms. A cold sore treatment is for symptom relief, and can include:
- Antiviral topical ointment
- Oral antiviral medication
- Over-the-counter topical anesthetic or anti-inflammation agents
Your first cold sore can take up to three weeks to heal, but later ones may disappear in a week or two. While there’s not usually a reason to go to the doctor for a cold sore, your doctor can test for the virus with a swab and culture and prescribe antiviral medication.
What Are Canker Sores?
Canker sores are found on the inside of the mouth, including the lips, cheeks, and tongue. They’re small ulcers that usually have a red base and may be covered by a white or yellow layer. Common symptoms include:
- Bleeding gums
- Painful gums
- A painful lump on the gums
What Causes Canker Sores?
Canker sores can be caused by things such as:
- Food allergies
- A weakened immune system
- Mouth injury (like biting your tongue or cheek)
- Some medicines
- Irritation caused by orthodontic braces
How to Treat Canker Sores
Canker sores aren’t contagious, and they are not easily visible to others. They can be painful, though.
- Try an oral pain reliever since ointments are difficult to keep in place when the sore is inside your mouth.
- Keep your mouth clean by brushing regularly
- Use an anesthetic mouth rinse to ease pain
- Avoid spicy, acidic, or salty foods during healing, which can take up to two weeks
There’s no reason to go to the doctor unless the sores return frequently or are large.
So, what is the difference between canker sore versus cold sore? Location, location, location! Cold sores are usually on the edge of the lips, while canker sores are inside the mouth. Cold sores are contagious and can be treated with antiviral ointments and pain relievers, while canker sores require only pain relief. And both can last a few weeks.
For more information on treating oral sores or to find a doctor, contact UPMC.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.