Mouth Ulcers are very common and are often linked to stress or hormones. It’s well recognized that they can be caused by a deficiency in iron and lack of some vitamins, such as B12.
When I look back, I sometimes think years of my teen life were spent dealing with mouth ulcers. I seemed to have them all the time, although in reality I probably suffered for 10 days, 10 times a year for a couple of years.
It wasn’t just one ulcer, though – I’d have a mouthful of them at a time.My mother had heard washing your mouth with salted water eased the pain and helped clear them, and it did seem to help a bit.
The problem started when I was about 13 and at first I thought it must be caused by my toothbrush or a virus. The doctor said it was common and might be due to a hormonal problem or an iron deficiency, which seemed to make sense as I’d recently started my periods. But at one point I thought I was going to be putting up with ulcers every month for the rest of my life.
A Stressful Stage
I suffered an incredible amount of discomfort. On the worst days, the ulcers would be in my cheeks, under my tongue and inside my lips. I could hardly talk properly and found it difficult to eat. I was getting teased at school, too, which was stressful. That’s what made me go back to the doctor and Mum tried desperately to find out more about other treatments.
I was given supplements and gels to put in my mouth when ulcers struck, but the problem didn’t go away. I’m aware now that it was probably seen as a small problem – harmless and treatable – but at the time it was so painful and uncomfortable it affected my diet and sleep and also had a massive impact on my confidence and social life.
The Food Connection
By the time I was 15 and studying for exams, I seemed to begetting lots of colds and catarrh-type coughs, and I think my parents thought it was stress or even an excuse to get out of school.
But on the recommendation of a family friend, we started to consider diet and I went to an alternative practitioner, who looked at food intolerance.My family were sceptical when I came home saying I shouldn’t eat dairy foods or pork (as a child I’d drunk a pint of milk every day) but I was desperate to try something else.
Within four months of cutting out these foods, the ulcers stopped –completely. And I found my nose less runny and my tummy more settled, too. If I ate dairy foods (at a party or on holiday) I was sure to get an ulcer.
I’ve no idea what, if any, the connection with dairy might be,but I’ve continued to avoid it since, although I’m careful to eat plenty of calcium-rich soya products, green leafy veg and beans to compensate. I was able to eat pork again two years later, however, with no ill effects.
What are Mouth Ulcers?
These painful, oval-shaped sores – canker sores, to give them their proper name – are white, red, yellow or grayish and swollen round the edge.
They form in the mouth, usually on the inside of the cheeks or lips. Some can be large and deep, while others are tiny but may appear in clusters. Most people get only one or two a year and they usually clear up on their own in a week or two.
However, around one in five people in the US suffer with frequent mouth ulcers. Doctors like to check up on the problem if new ones develop before the old ones have healed, if they last for more than three weeks or if you suffer regularly and the problem is so painful it affects your daily life.
They may want to take a blood test to check for signs of underlying infection, an iron or vitamin deficiency or other health problems, where mouth ulcers are often a symptom. In rare cases, a long-lasting mouth ulcer may be a sign of mouth cancer, which is why they should be checked out if they linger.
Who is Affected?
Women and young adults suffer the most with recurrent mouth ulcers, possibly because of a link with hormonal changes.
Infrequent mouth ulcers are most likely to be caused by damage to the inside of your mouth – for example,when you accidentally bite your lip or cheek or scrape it with food, a toothbrush or sharp tooth.
Some toothpastes and rinses (those containing sodium lauryl sulphate) are also considered culprits, although more research into the link is needed.
The causes of recurring mouth ulcers aren’t always known but it may be down to a genetic vulnerability, combined with another trigger, such as stress, certain foods or hormonal changes. Some medications can increase the risk, too.
They can also be the symptom of another health problem, such as a viral infection,including the cold sore virus and chickenpox,a deficiency of vitamin B12 and/or iron, coeliac disease and crohn’s disease.
How are they treated?
Ulcers usually clear upon their own, although over-the-counter remedies can reduce the pain and speed up healing.
You can help prevent mouth ulcers by taking care of your teeth – good oral hygiene and dental check-ups will help to identify and treat problems, such as sharp teeth, which could damage your mouth.
What is the link with diet?
Coeliac disease –an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system reacts abnormally to gluten (one of the proteins found in wheat, rye and barley) – and deficiencies in iron and vitamin B12 can result in mouth ulcers, so it’s important to see your GP.
They’ve also been linked to other foods, such as cheese, tomatoes, strawberries, wheat four, chocolate, coffee, peanuts and almonds.
Meanwhile, in the absence of more specific triggers, a balanced diet rich in nutrients will help keep you and the inside of your mouth healthy and help protect against mouth ulcers.