Mouth Problems, Noninjury

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Mouth Problems, Noninjury

Topic Overview

It is not unusual to have a problem with your mouth from time to time. A mouth problem can involve your gums, lips, tongue, or inner cheeks, the roof of your mouth (soft and hard palates), under your tongue, your neck, or your teeth. Your mouth may be dry, or food may not taste right. You may have bad breath or a sore on your lip, gums, or tongue that makes it hard to eat or talk. Many of these problems can get better with home treatment.

Common mouth problems include:

  • Sores, such as cold sores (also called fever blisters) and canker sores. Canker sores develop inside the mouth, while cold sores and impetigo usually affect the area around the outside of the mouth.
  • Infections, which can be caused by a virus (such as herpes simplex) or a bacteria (such as epiglottitis, or impetigo, or a sexually transmitted infection). An infection is more serious when it causes rapid swelling of the tongue or throat and blockage of the airway.
  • Tender, red splits or cracks at the corner of your mouth (angular cheilitis), which can be caused by infection, a diet too low in vitamins, and over-closure of the mouth in someone who has been without teeth or dentures for some time.
  • Chapped lips, which may be caused by dry, windy, cold, or very hot weather.
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia). A common cause of dry mouth is dehydration. Over time, having a dry mouth increases your risk of mouth infections, gum disease, and dental cavities.
  • Thick, hard white patches inside the mouth that cannot be wiped off (leukoplakia). This is commonly caused by irritation of the mouth, such as from a rough tooth or poorly fitting denture rubbing against tissue or from smoking or using smokeless (spit) tobacco.
  • Thrush, a common infection of the mouth and tongue caused by the yeast Candida albicans. Thrush appears on the mouth and tongue as white patches that look like cottage cheese or milk curds. When the patches are wiped away, the underlying area appears red and raw and may bleed. In babies, thrush may cause a rash in the diaper area.
  • Taste changes. Your sense of taste may be decreased, lost, or changed, such as a metallic taste in your mouth.

Your tongue may become sore or swollen, or it may change color or texture. A buildup of food and bacteria on the tongue may make the tongue look thick or furry ("hairy tongue"). Often the problems will go away if the surface of the tongue is regularly brushed with a soft-bristled toothbrush. If your tongue problem is from some local irritation, such as tobacco use, removing the source of the irritation may clear up the tongue problem. Rapid swelling of the tongue can be caused by an allergic reaction, which can interfere with breathing.

Bad breath (halitosis) or changed breath can be an embarrassing problem. Make sure that you brush your teeth twice each day and floss once a day to decrease the bacteria that can cause bad breath. Brushing your tongue can also help.

The use of alcohol and tobacco can cause many mouth problems. Your chances of having oral cancer are increased if you smoke, use smokeless (spit) tobacco, or use alcohol excessively.

Mouth problems may occur more commonly with other conditions and diseases, such as diabetes, Down syndrome, and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Many medicines also can cause mouth problems.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

Mouth problems are common and can be very annoying. But most mouth problems are minor and will clear up with home treatment and time. Simple home treatment measures, such as increasing your fluid intake to prevent dehydration and using a humidifier inside your home, can relieve many mouth problems. Try home treatment when you have one of the following mouth problems:

  • Chapped lips. Avoid licking or biting your lips. Protect your lips with lipstick or a lip balm, such as a water-based product. If your lips are severely chapped, build a barrier by applying petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, for a short time and then switch to a water-based product. Avoid sun or wind exposure. Using a humidifier in your home may help.
  • A dry mouth. Avoid caffeinated beverages, tobacco, and alcohol, all of which increase dryness in your mouth.
  • Bad breath, a bad taste in your mouth, a black or coated tongue, or "hairy tongue." You can freshen your breath by brushing your teeth, tongue, roof of your mouth, and gums. Sometimes just rinsing your mouth with fresh water will freshen your breath and make your mouth taste better.

Sore or ulcer inside your mouth

Changes in your diet can also help if you have a sore or ulcer inside your mouth, such as a canker sore.

  • Drink cold liquids, such as water or iced tea, or eat flavored ice pops or frozen juices. Use a straw to keep the liquid from coming in contact with your mouth sore.
  • Eat soft, bland foods that are easy to swallow, such as ice cream, custard, applesauce, cottage cheese, macaroni and cheese, soft-cooked eggs, yogurt, or cream soups.
  • Cut foods into small pieces, or grind, mash, blend, or puree foods.
  • Avoid coffee, chocolate, spicy and salty foods, citrus fruits, nuts, seeds, and tomatoes.

Pain relief

  • If you have a painful sore on the outside of your lip, apply ice to the area when you first feel a sore coming on (tingling or prickly feeling at the site). This may help reduce the pain and dry out the sore. Apply the ice directly to the sore—5 minutes on, 10 minutes off—repeating as desired.
  • Rinse with an antacid, such as Maalox or Mylanta, or dab it on your sores with a cotton swab.
  • Avoid very hot, cold, or sweet foods and drinks if they increase your pain.
  • Apply petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, to ease the cracking and dryness of a lip sore.
  • Use a lip protector, such as Blistex or Campho-Phenique, to ease the pain. Don't share your lip protector with others, because cold sores are contagious.
  • Puncture a vitamin E capsule and squeeze the oil onto the sore. This soothes inflammation and protects the sore.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Signs of dehydration develop, such as being thirstier than usual and having darker urine than usual.
  • Signs of infection develop.
  • Symptoms persist or become more severe or frequent.


Many mouth problems can be prevented. Try some of the following home prevention measures to prevent:

  • Cold sores. Avoid direct physical contact with people who have a cold sore. Remember, cold sores are caused by a contagious virus (herpes type 1). Children often become infected by contact with parents, siblings, or other close relatives who have cold sores.
  • Canker sores. Avoid injury to the inside of the mouth and foods that can trigger a canker sore.
  • Bad breath. Practice good dental care: Brush your teeth twice each day, and floss once a day.
  • Dry mouth. Make sure you are drinking enough fluids to avoid dehydration. Hard candies can increase saliva and help prevent problems with a dry mouth.

Tobacco can cause mouth problems. Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Avoid alcohol, which can cause a dry mouth and bad breath and can increase your risk of canker sores.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What is your main symptom?
  • When did your symptoms start?
  • Have you had this problem before? If so, do you know what the cause was at that time? How was it treated?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Have they helped?
  • What nonprescription medicines have you tried? Have they helped?
  • Have you started on any new medicines or had a change in the dosage of a medicine?
  • What is your routine for taking care of your teeth and gums? When did you last visit a dentist?
  • Do you have any health risks?


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerDavid Messenger, MD
Last RevisedJuly 20, 2012

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