The best thing to be said about canker sores is that they’re benign, not cancerous.
Beyond that, ask anyone who’s ever had one, and you’ll get a quick recitation of the horrendous symptoms, with pain at the top of the list.
According to the Mayo Clinic, canker sores are also known as aphthous ulcers. They’re small, shallow lesions that grow on the soft tissues of the mouth, such as under your tongue and lips or at the base of your gums. They can be so painful that eating or talking becomes difficult.
The severity of their symptoms is linked in part to the type of canker sore from which you suffer:
Mild: This is the most common type. It’s normally less than one third of an inch wide. Although not particularly serious, it can cause a lot of pain. It typically vanishes on its own within about two weeks.
Major: These canker sores are large and have irregular borders. They can go on for months or even years. When they eventually heal, they often leave extensive scarring in their wake.
Herpetiform: They’re actually clusters of dozens of small lesions that converge to create one big, serious ulcer. These sores typically develop later in life. They last anywhere from a week to a month or even longer and usually require treatment by a medical professional.
Before a canker sore develops, you will experience a sensation of burning, itching or tingling in the area, according to CankerSore.net. A few days later, a small lesion will be present and easy to detect with your tongue or finger. This is when the pain begins.
Canker sores become even more painful when something such as eating agitates them. As the lesion grows larger, it ulcerates, causing an opening in the mucous membrane inside your mouth. You can then see an outline that looks whitish. Once the sore is red, gray, whitish or yellow in the center with the halo, it’s typically very painful.
At this point in the process, proteins and coagulants are accumulating at the site of the ulcer, trying to repair the membrane. Pain lessens as the canker sore recedes in size and eventually disappears.
Some individuals report agonizing pain just from eating when they’re suffering from a canker sore. Other agitation includes rubbing the sore with your tongue or lips or even accidentally biting it, especially when it’s on the inside of your cheek. Patients who suffer from chronic dry mouth often report especially painful symptoms.
In general, major cankers are more painful than their minor cousins. The lifecycle of either type is fairly predictable, however.
1 to 3 days before seeing sore: You will feel tingling, burning or itching in a particular area in your mouth.
1 to 3 days after seeing sore: You will notice a small red or white lesion or bump and feel some pain.
3 to 7 days after the sore appears: A full-blown canker sore will reside in your mouth, with a red or whitish-gray interior. Sometimes it will also have a white outline.
7 days to 3 weeks after the sore appears: The canker sore will slowly shrink and finally disappear. However, in extreme cases, it could last for months or years.