PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Oral ulcers are characterised by a loss of the mucosal layer within the mouth. This loss may be acute or chronic, localised or diffuse. This is one of the most common oral problems presenting in primary care and can arise as a result of a number of disorders. Some of these relate to problems around the oropharynx but there is a wide variety of systemic disorders that can also give rise to these lesions. For other complaints in the mouth, see separate articles Problems in the Mouth and Some Dental and Periodontal Diseases.
Most ulcers are painful and therefore present early; the notable exception is oral carcinoma in its early stages. Their clinical presentation is characterised by multiple, recurrent, small, round, or ovoid ulcers with circumscribed margins and erythematous haloes present in different sizes.
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- Examine the lips, and ask the patient to open their mouth (and to remove dentures if present): look at the buccal mucosa, tongue (including under the tongue), the gums and the teeth.
- Note lesion location, size and associated features (eg, pigmentation, bleeding, presence of plaques or sloughed mucosa).
- Examine the hard palate (looking for previous trauma, pigmentation and telangiectasias).
- Using a tongue depressor, ask the patient to protrude their tongue and say "aah" in order to assess the oropharynx.
- Palpate a lesion with a gloved finger: tethering or induration is suspicious and warrants further investigation.
These lesions can arise as a result of a number of (sometimes overlapping) disorders detailed below.
Local causes of oral ulceration
- The most common cause of oral mucosal ulceration.
- It can be due to tongue or cheek biting or scratching with finger nails.
- Any ulcer usually starts to heal within 10 days following removal of the cause.
- This can arise from direct contact of oral mucosa with aspirin (leaving white plaques which slough off) or if improperly cleaned/rinsed dentures are worn.
- Ulcers associated with dentures usually occur in a line along the gums. They are usually more painful than mechanical ulcers.
- These arise from mucosal contact with hot food or liquids.
- Although the palate is most commonly affected, they can also occur on the lip, tongue or oropharyngeal region.
Recurrent aphthous ulceration
- These are characterised by clearly defined, painful, shallow rounded ulcers not associated with systemic disease. They are not infective.
- They usually begin in childhood and decrease in frequency/severity with age. They are more common in women, Caucasians, non-smokers and people of higher socio-economic status.
- Around 40% of cases have a family history.
- Some cases are associated with:
- Local trauma.
- Food sensitivity (eg, chocolate, coffee, peanuts, almonds, strawberries, cheese and tomatoes).
- Hormonal change (they tend to subside during pregnancy).
- Cessation of smoking.
- Primary herpetic ulceration can occur (most commonly herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Secondary nonspecific bacterial infection of chronic ulcers can delay the healing process.
- Candida albicans is a normal commensal but it can overwhelm other microbes in those who have received long-term antibiotics or in the immunocompromised. Human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8) is associated with Kaposi's sarcoma of the gingiva.
- Discharge may be present.
- White coating plaques are characteristic of oral candidiasis (thrush).
- Note - in babies with oral candidiasis, check the child for nappy rash and explore the possibility of maternal vaginal candidiasis (source of infection).
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) lesions account for 90% of all oral neoplasia, with malignant melanoma, lymphoma and metastases accounting for the remaining 10%.
- Tobacco smoking and heavy alcohol consumption strongly increase the risk and act synergistically to increase risk further when combined (100-fold risk in women and 38-fold risk in men).
- SCC may start as white lesions (leukoplakia) or red lesions (erythroplakia): white patches carry a 6% risk of malignancy and red lesions are malignant until proven otherwise.
- Spread occurs via the submandibular and cervical lymph nodes; these will be involved on presentation in 30% of patients.
- These often present as slow-growing, painless, non-healing ulcers with raised borders, usually on the lateral aspect of the tongue, the floor of the mouth or on the soft palate.
- Ulceration occurs either acutely (as a result of direct damage to epithelial cells) or more long-term, secondary to epithelial atrophy and damage to underlying blood vessels.
- The acute reaction usually begins during the second week of radiation, presenting as erythema followed by spotty mucositis which coalesces to form areas of ulceration covered by a yellow-white pseudomembrane with a bright erythematous border. The lips are often involved.
- Exquisite pain and burning may be present. Healing generally begins as therapy ends and is usually complete within 3 to 4 weeks, although the discoloration and mucosal atrophy may be lifelong.
Ischaemic ulcers: necrotising sialometaplasia
This is an uncommon disorder that gives rise to large areas of deep ulcers on one side of the hard and sometimes the soft palate. This condition is probably associated with an ischaemic event and is associated with factors such as smoking, alcohol use, denture wearing, recent surgery and systemic disease. It can also be a feature of bulimia nervosa. The clinical and histopathological features may mimic those of SCC.
Systemic causes of oral ulceration
Although aphthous ulcers are not associated with systemic disease, mouth ulceration can occur with systemic disease. In these conditions, patients benefit from topical drug treatment for symptom control and may need concurrent antimicrobial treatment for secondary infections. However, ultimately, the underlying cause needs to be addressed.
The following are systemic causes of oral ulceration:
- Autoimmune conditions:
- Lichen planus
- Linear IgA disease
- Dermatitis herpetiformis
- Wegener's granulomatosis
- Inflammatory conditions:
- Chemotherapeutic agents
- Others, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), dactinomycin, gold salts, nicorandil
- Sytemic infections:
- Inherited conditions:
- Various miscellaneous conditions:
- Haematological disease, notably vitamin B12, folate and iron deficiencies
- Chronic renal failure
- Strachan's syndrome
- Sweet's disease
- Establish the cause.
- It is important to establish the diagnosis in each case, as the majority of these lesions require specific management in addition to local treatment.
- Local treatment aims to protect the ulcerated area, to relieve pain, to reduce inflammation, or to control secondary infection.
- An unexplained ulcer of more than three weeks' duration warrants an urgent specialist review.
Referral should be to an oral medicine department or to an oral and maxillofacial department:
- If there is suspected malignancy (urgently): persistent symptoms (>3 weeks), unexplained bleeding, painful or swollen red or white patches
- Refer non-urgently if the patches are not painful, not swollen or not bleeding.
- If there is a suspected underlying cause for aphthous-like ulcers.
- If ulceration is especially disabling, painful or recurrent (despite a benign diagnosis).
- If there is a localised dental cause for the ulceration - refer to a dentist.
- A warm saline mouthwash (half a teaspoon of salt in a glassful of warm water or dilute compound sodium chloride mouthwash with an equal amount of water) has a mechanical cleansing effect and may relieve the pain of traumatic ulceration.
- Use until the discomfort and swelling ease.
- Used in the management of secondary bacterial infection.
- May accelerate the healing of recurrent aphthae.
- Chlorhexidine - this is the mouthwash of choice for aphthous ulcers. It is also useful in the treatment of denture stomatitis and as prophylaxis in the prevention of oral candidiasis in immunocompromised patients.
- It is available as a mouthwash, gel and spray. It can stain teeth if used regularly.
- Topical agents are available as oromucosal dissolvable tablets, mouthwashes, pastes and inhaler sprays.
- It is most effective if applied in the 'prodromal' phase of aphthous ulcers.
- Hydrocortisone oromucosal tablets should be allowed to dissolve next to an ulcer and are useful in recurrent aphthae and erosive lichenoid lesions.
- Beclometasone dipropionate inhaler 50-100 micrograms sprayed twice daily on the oral mucosa can be used to manage oral ulceration although this is an unlicensed indication. Alternatively, betamethasone soluble tablets dissolved in water can be used as a mouthwash to treat oral ulceration although this is also unlicensed.
- Systemic corticosteroid therapy is reserved for severe conditions such as pemphigus vulgaris.
- These have a limited role, as short duration of action precludes good maintenance of analgesia throughout the day.
- They are mainly indicated for intolerable and intractable pain of chronic ulceration (such as with major aphthae).
- Care must be taken not to produce pharyngeal anaesthesia prior to eating (risk of choking).
- Lidocaine 5% ointment or lozenges containing a local anaesthetic are available to apply to the ulcer.
- Benzydamine and flurbiprofen are NSAIDs.
- Benzydamine mouthwash or spray may be useful, especially in reducing the discomfort of post-irradiation mucositis. However, the full-strength mouthwash can cause some stinging and can be diluted with an equal volume of water.
- Flurbiprofen lozenges are licensed for the relief of sore throat.
- Choline salicylate gel may provide relief for recurrent aphthae, but excessive application or confinement under a denture irritates the mucosa and can itself cause ulceration.
- Low-dose oral doxycycline (eg, 20 mg bd for three months) can be helpful in the management of periodontitis.
- Adcortyl® in Orabase® is no longer available in the UK.
No single treatment has been found to be effective for recurrent aphthous ulceraton so there is no conclusive opinion regarding the best systemic intervention .
Further reading & references
- Aphthous ulcer; NICE CKS, August 2012 (UK access only)
- Candida - oral; NICE CKS, July 2013 (UK access only)
- Herpes simplex - oral; NICE CKS, Sept 2012 (UK access only)
- Messadi DV, Younai F; Aphthous ulcers. Dermatol Ther. 2010 May-Jun;23(3):281-90. doi: 10.1111/j.1529-8019.2010.01324.x.
- Chavan M, Jain H, Diwan N, et al; Recurrent aphthous stomatitis: a review. J Oral Pathol Med. 2012 Sep;41(8):577-83. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0714.2012.01134.x. Epub 2012 Mar 13.
- British National Formulary
- Brocklehurst P, Tickle M, Glenny AM, et al; Systemic interventions for recurrent aphthous stomatitis (mouth ulcers). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Sep 12;9:CD005411. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005411.pub2.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Olivia Scott
Dr Louise Newson
Dr John Cox