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How To Treat Canker Sores on Your Tongue

canker sore on tongue


The pain of a canker sore on your tongue is hard to ignore. You may be used to canker sore outbreaks on other parts of your mouth, but a canker sore on your tongue could be new.

Canker sores on the tongue are less common than canker sores on the inside of the cheeks, but they do happen. It’s good to be sure that your tongue ulcer really is a canker sore and not a different issue. Then you can take the right steps to treat your painful sore and perhaps prevent future outbreaks altogether.

What Are Canker Sores?

Canker sores, or aphthous ulcers, are shallow white lesions with inflamed pink borders that occur on the inner cheeks, the roof of the mouth, and the tongue. They’re not dangerous, but they do cause pain. Cankers are typically 1-4 mm in size, but aggressive sores can be larger than 5 mm. 

Though often confused with cold sores, canker sores are not contagious or caused by the herpes virus. They occur sporadically and heal between attacks. Most canker sores last 7-10 days, but severe canker sore outbreaks may take up to three weeks to heal. 

The most common triggers for canker sores include:

  • NSAIDs (Motrin®, Aleve®)
  • Vitamin deficiencies (low vitamin B12 or iron)
  • Foods high in citric acids, such as oranges, tomatoes and some cheeses
  • Underlying autoimmune conditions (HIV/AIDs, Lupus, Behçet’s disease)
  • Chronic high stress or a traumatic life event
  • A family history of canker sore outbreaks

Canker sores emerge in different shapes, sizes and severities. If you have a sore on the outside of your mouth or lips, you’re more likely dealing with a cold sore, not a canker sore.

Is It Common To Get a Canker Sore on Your Tongue?

Canker sores on the tongue are not as common, but you can get them. Look for these symptoms to determine whether you have a canker sore on your tongue:

  • Visible, round sore causing pain on the tongue
  • Sore is white or gray in color
  • Sore has a red or pink border

Other Possible Tongue Conditions

If the symptoms of your tongue problem don’t align with the defining characteristics of a canker sore mentioned above, you may be experiencing one of these other tongue-related conditions. 


Leukoplakia is a condition that causes white patches and sometimes sores in the mouth. Most white patches develop on the insides of the cheeks, on the gums, underneath the tongue or on the tongue. Unlike a canker sore on the tongue, leukoplakia usually doesn’t cause any pain. 

This condition is more serious than a canker sore because it can be a precursor to oral cancer. Research indicates that up to 17.5% of people with leukoplakia develop squamous cell carcinoma within 15 years. Talk with your dentist if you think you might have leukoplakia.

Oral Thrush

Oral thrush, also known as oral candidiasis, develops when a Candida fungus starts to accumulate on the lining of the mouth. Candida itself isn’t dangerous, but an excess of this fungus does cause unpleasant side effects that are very different from canker sore symptoms. 

You can recognize oral thrush from the following symptoms:

  • Creamy white lesions on the tongue, inner cheeks, roof of the mouth, and gums
  • Slightly raised lesions that look like cottage cheese
  • Cottony feeling in the mouth
  • Loss of taste

Thrush is most common in infants and the elderly, or in people with weakened immune systems, diabetes, or lung conditions requiring the use of inhaled steroids.

Oral Lichen Planus

Oral lichen planus is a chronic inflammatory condition. It causes white, lacy patches to develop inside the mouth. Red, swollen, and open sores may also appear, causing pain and discomfort. Signs of oral lichen planus appear throughout the entire mouth, including inside the cheeks, on the gums, tongue, palate and inner tissues of the lips. Your doctor can determine whether you have this condition.

canker sore on tongue

How To Treat a Canker Sore on the Tongue

If you determine that your tongue problem is, in fact, a canker sore, you can take steps to reduce your pain and avoid aggravating the sore further.

Care for Your Mouth

Certain factors can increase your canker sore pain. Use these guidelines to take extra care of your mouth while you have an active canker sore on your tongue:

  • Chew your food carefully to avoid biting your tongue.
  • Avoid spicy, salty and acidic foods.
  • Use extra care in your oral hygiene routine to avoid trauma to the canker sore and to keep bacteria under control.
  • See a dentist if you get canker sores regularly or if your sore seems unusually large or painful.

Use OTC Treatments

You can also try several over-the-counter treatments to reduce your canker sore pain.

Silver Nitrate

Silver nitrate is a natural chemical compound that’s been used since the 13th century for its antimicrobial properties. As soon as silver nitrate is activated by contact with moisture, it can deliver free silver ions to wounded tissue. This reaction binds the tissue and obstructs blood vessels, which cauterizes active wounds and reduces the pain they cause. 

It’s not the most pleasant experience, but it’s undeniably effective. Silver nitrate is a popular remedy for skin tags, nosebleeds, skin ulcers and other skin conditions. Overall, research shows that treating canker sores with silver nitrate is a simple and affordable way to decrease pain, though the healing time remains about the same. 

Topical Anesthetics

Over-the-counter topical anesthetics like benzocaine (Kank-A) and Orajel provide safe, temporary numbing of painful sores. You can apply local anesthetics several times a day to relieve discomfort until your canker sore heals completely. 

Experiment with Home Remedies

If you want to use something that’s already sitting in your pantry, try these simple at-home solutions to see if one works for you. 

Coconut Oil

Unrefined coconut oil possesses certain properties that have the potential to alleviate canker sore discomfort:

  • Healthy fatty acids
  • Antimicrobial effects
  • Antiviral activity
  • Antifungal capabilities
  • Anti-inflammatory action
  • Mild analgesic to reduce pain and discomfort

In fact, the applications of coconut oil are so highly valued in other countries that the coconut tree is often referred to as the “tree of life.” 

Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is an easy way to reduce bacteria in the mouth and support canker sore healing. 

Since this substance is very potent, be sure to dilute and apply safely to your sores:

  • Dilute 3% hydrogen peroxide with equal parts water.
  • Dip a cotton ball or Q-tip into the mixture.
  • Apply directly to your canker sore two to three times per day.

To cover a large area of the mouth, you can even use diluted hydrogen peroxide as a mouth rinse. Simply swish for a minute and spit it out. 

Use the Luminance RED

Lifestyle changes and over-the-counter treatments are important and useful, but they can’t address canker sores the way treatment with light can. The Luminance RED is an FDA-registered, hand-held device that uses high-powered, medically-optimized light to help you manage canker sores on the tongue and elsewhere in the mouth. 

Light therapy has been shown to improve canker sores and prevent future outbreaks. Clinical data conclusively shows that specific wavelengths of red light reduce the average healing time of canker sores from 8.9 days to 3.1 days. This therapy can also achieve a significant and immediate reduction in canker sore pain. If you regularly suffer from canker sores and want to prevent future outbreaks, try light treatment with the Luminance RED

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