Is There a Relationship Between Canker Sores and HIV?
In most cases, a canker sore is nothing more than an uncomfortable but harmless ulcer that heals on its own.
However, serious underlying health issues, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), can also lead to canker sores. If you experience significant, recurring canker sores, it’s important to determine whether your painful mouth ulcers are a manifestation of a more serious underlying health condition.
Below, we’ll look specifically at the relationship between canker sores and HIV.
What Are Canker Sores?
Canker sores, or aphthous ulcers, are shallow white lesions with inflamed pink borders that occur inside the lips and mouth. The sores are typically 1-4 mm in size, but aggressive sores can grow to larger than 5 mm.
Though often confused with cold sores, canker sores are not a result of the contagious herpes simplex virus. Instead, canker sores occur sporadically in response to certain triggers and heal between attacks. Most canker sores last 7-10 days, but severe canker sore outbreaks can take up to three weeks to heal.
Several types of canker sores emerge with different severities and frequencies, including minor, major and herpetiform canker sores.
Minor Canker Sores
Minor canker sores are the most common, accounting for about 80% of canker sore cases. These are small sores that cause some discomfort but no scarring. In most cases, minor canker sores heal within a week.
Major Canker Sores
Major canker sores, on the other hand, are less common and cause more severe side effects. These sores can last more than two weeks and grow to over 1 centimeter in diameter. Patients usually experience extreme pain and difficulty eating and drinking during major canker sore outbreaks.
Herpetiform Canker Sores
Herpetiform canker sores are tiny blisters that occur in clusters of up to 100. They can develop anywhere in the mouth. This type of mouth ulcer causes a tingling or burning sensation before the sore itself forms. Fortunately, herpetiform canker sores typically heal within one to two weeks.
What Is HIV?
HIV is a virus that weakens the immune system by attacking cells responsible for fighting disease and infection. An HIV infection cannot be cured, but thanks to advancements in medicine it can now be effectively treated. With proper medical care, HIV can be controlled to prevent the progression to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
The HIV virus is most commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse or shared drug injection equipment. It causes flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks of infection. These symptoms include fever, chills, night sweats, muscle aches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and mouth ulcers.
Could Frequent Canker Sores Mean You Have HIV?
HIV infects a relatively small percentage of the U.S. population, about 1.2 million people. So while a connection between recurrent canker sores and HIV does exist, this doesn’t mean HIV is a likely reason for your mouth ulcers.
That said, HIV is known to cause mouth ulcers like canker sores because the virus weakens the immune system and makes it much harder for the body to ward off infection. Research shows that between 32% and 54% of people with HIV develop at least one major oral health problem, such as mouth ulcers, due to a compromised immune system.
If you don’t already have a confirmed HIV infection, then HIV is not a likely cause of your canker sores. However, if you experience frequent or severe canker sore outbreaks, it’s safest to see a doctor to determine whether an underlying condition is responsible.
The bottom line? While an HIV infection increases your likelihood of suffering from painful canker sores, there are many other reasons for canker sores to develop in your mouth.
Other Common Causes of Canker Sores
Canker sores develop as the result of certain triggers. Any of the most common canker sore triggers could be the underlying cause of your ulcers.
Acidic fruits and vegetables, such as lemons, pineapples, tomatoes and oranges, are believed to trigger canker sores. Some people are more prone to this reaction than others, so pay attention to the condition of your mouth before and after eating acidic foods.
Irritation in the Mouth
Irritation to your cheeks, gums or tongue may cause canker sores to develop, including:
- Vigorous brushing
- Excessive flossing
- Using toothpicks
- Dirty dental appliances
- Sharp braces
- Biting your lip
Do your best to avoid these triggers by brushing gently and cleaning your dental appliances daily.
We all know stress manifests itself in many ways. Anecdotal evidence provides the strongest proof of canker sores from stress, but existing research also suggests a high correlation between canker sores and anxiety, depression and psychological stress.
Underlying Health Conditions
Other underlying health problems unrelated to HIV may trigger canker sores as well. Autoimmune diseases like celiac disease, lupus, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease, for example, affect the immune system and may cause frequent canker sore outbreaks.
Untreated vitamin deficiencies also cause mouth sores. Research suggests that a nightly dose of vitamin B12 can help prevent canker sores. The addition of vitamin C and lysine may also help to speed healing if taken from the first signs of a canker sore outbreak.
5 Signs It’s Time To See a Doctor
Mouth ulcers can be a signal that the body is in distress. If you’ve made positive lifestyle changes to avoid common canker sore triggers but they still recur frequently, it may be time to see a doctor.
Call your doctor or dentist if you notice the following signs:
- Unusually large sores
- Sores that are spreading
- Intense pain, even after using treatments
- Sores that last three weeks or longer without healing
- A high fever
Your doctor will evaluate your health for additional signs of underlying health conditions in order to determine the root cause of your canker sores. With the right treatment, the frequency of your canker sore outbreaks may decrease.
Canker Sore Treatment Options
Thanks to a range of over-the-counter medications, home remedies, and powerful light treatment devices like the Luminance RED, you have many options to tackle your worst canker sore symptoms.
Though prescription medications are not available to treat canker sores, you can try over-the-counter oral medications like ibuprofen, acetaminophen or naproxen to alleviate your discomfort. Zinc throat lozenges may also help reduce canker sore symptoms.
Over-the-counter topical anesthetics like benzocaine (Kank-A) and Orajel provide safe, temporary numbing of painful sores. You can apply these local anesthetics a few times a day to relieve discomfort until your canker sores heal completely.
Home remedies aren’t necessarily backed by clinical research, but strong anecdotal evidence shared by people who experience frequent canker sores advocates for at-home treatments such as apple cider vinegar and silver nitrate.
Organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar (ACV) contains “the mother,” a substance that consists of strands of proteins, enzymes and healthy bacteria. Some evidence suggests that the antimicrobial and antiviral properties of ACV help combat infections in the body, which could help your canker sore heal more quickly. To use this home remedy, dilute ACV and apply to your canker sore twice a day.
Silver nitrate, meanwhile, is a natural chemical compound that cauterizes active wounds and reduces the pain they cause, though it does cause pain at the time of application. Research shows that treating canker sores with silver nitrate is a simple and affordable way to decrease the pain they cause, though the healing time remains about the same.
Milk of magnesia is a natural remedy known by the brand name Maalox®. It can be blended with Benadryl® or another antihistamine to alleviate the pain and inflammation caused by canker sores.
The Luminance RED
Canker sores can cause many days of discomfort, even with the help of home remedies. Treatment with high-powered, medically-optimized light is a gentle, safe and reliable way to alleviate even your worst canker sore pain.
The Luminance RED is an FDA-registered handheld device used to administer soothing red light to canker sores and other mouth ulcers. This therapy provides your skin with a burst of powerful energy that can speed canker sore healing times up by 49% and even stop future outbreaks from forming.