What Are the Main Differences Between Canker Sores and Oral Cancer?

Inflamed areas of your mouth that hurt and usually go away in a few weeks are called canker sores. Raised areas or patches in your mouth that get worse over time can be a sign of oral cancer.

Canker sores occur in almost everyone occasionally. Although the cause of them is unknown, the following variables may contribute to their development:
  • a family history
  • a weakened immune system
  • stress
  • hormonal changes
Alcohol use and tobacco use, whether in smoking or chewing form, are highly linked to oral cancer.

Oral cancer and canker sores can have comparable symptoms. However, canker sores are typically little, painful white or yellow ulcers, but those with oral cancer are more likely to have elevated patches or hardened areas in their mouth.

Additionally, although oral cancer most frequently appears on the tongue, canker sores are more likely to appear on your lips or cheeks.

How do you tell the difference between a canker sore and oral cancer?

Canker sores are typically very noticeable. Often, doctors may diagnose them without doing any particular testing.

Canker sores can appear anywhere in the soft tissue of your mouth, although they typically appear on your inner cheeks or lips. They are frequently only a few millimetres across and have a modest size. Only roughly 5% of people get herpetiform canker sores, which are clusters of pinpoint ulcers larger than an inch in diameter. About 10% of people get huge sores.

The centre of canker sores is typically white or yellow. They could have a crimson border, elevated sides, and a somewhat depressed centre. The ulcer's perimeter is typically clearly defined.

Before the canker sore shows, you could experience tingling or burning in your mouth. They frequently produce intense discomfort.

Differences between canker sores and oral cancer

Canker soreOral cancer
The most common locationinner cheeks or lipstongue
Durationunder 1–2 weeksTrusted Source without treatmentbecomes worse over time if nothing is done
Painoften sharp painoften not
Usual appearancea circular sore that is white or yellow with a distinct red bordervarying, but frequently a non-healing white or reddish spot
Risk factorsstress and immunosuppressionsmoking tobacco and drinking alcohol

The appearance of oral cancer varies greatly. An unhealing mouth sore or patch is often the first sign for a lot of people.

Additional preliminary signs and symptoms may comprise:
  • unexplained mouth bleeding
  • alterations in your tongue feeling or taste
  • lumps in your mouth, on your tongue, or your lips
  • alterations to the mouth's texture
  • thinning of the inside cheek
  • a white, red, or mixed-colour patch
  • loose teeth
In contrast to canker sores, oral cancer typically doesn't hurt too much.

Typical places where it appears are the following:
  • tongue
  • lips
  • the floor of your mouth
Additionally, oral cancer can spread to other tissues. If the cancer spreads to your lungs, for instance, you could have:
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing

Can oral cancer initially look like a canker sore?

Canker sores and oral cancer can have identical symptoms. Canker sores are typically easily recognised by their distinctive look, which is a tiny, well-defined white or yellow sore. Non-healing spots in your mouth are more likely to be caused by oral cancer.

It's best to contact your doctor and err on the side of caution if you're unsure whether a sore could be cancer.

Can you have canker sores in the gums and tongue?

The interior of your cheeks or lips is where canker sores typically appear first.

Canker sores are less common to appear on the:
  • gums
  • the roof of your mouth
  • tongue

What else can cause sores and ulcers in the mouth?

Mouth sores can appear as a result of a variety of disorders. While many can be treated with ease, it's crucial to receive a correct diagnosis to rule out cancer or other dangerous illnesses.

Among the possible reasons are:
  • Food sensitivities or allergies: Certain foods, such as pineapple, melon, and vinegar, can make your mouth ulcerate.
  • Cold sores (fever blisters): Usually, the area surrounding your lips is where cold sores appear. The herpes simplex virus is the cause of it.
  • Oral thrush: A fungal illness known as oral thrush can produce painful spots and white patches on your tongue or other oral tissues.
  • Biting or injury: An oral trauma might result in pain and swelling that resembles that of a malignancy or ulcer. When chewing, it's normal to unintentionally bite your inner cheek.
  • Behcet’s disease: An autoimmune ailment called Behcet's illness can result in oral and vaginal sores.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Researchers have connected certain dietary deficits, like insufficient amounts of B vitamins and vitamin D, to mouth ulcers.
  • HIV: Because of immunosuppression, recurrent and severe canker sores may be an early sign of HIV infection.

When to get a cancer screening

A screening test checks for cancer even before symptoms appear. For those without symptoms, there is no standard screening procedure for oral cancer. If a chronic pain or texture change in your mouth doesn't get better after a few weeks, you should get in touch with your doctor.

The earlier you begin treatment for oral cancer, the better your prognosis will usually be. In the United States, the 5-year relative survival rate for oral cancer limited to the mouth was 94% between 2012 and 2018. But as the cancer moved to other tissues, this fell to 38%.

The 5-year relative survival rate compares the proportion of cancer patients who survive for at least five years to those who do not have the disease.


Ulcers in the mouth are called canker sores. Without medical intervention, they frequently recover in a few weeks. Raised areas or bumps in your mouth could be an indication of oral cancer, which usually worsens over time.

If a mouth sore isn't healing or if it's growing worse over time, you should get in touch with your doctor. As smoking and heavy alcohol consumption are two of the biggest risk factors for oral cancer, it's especially crucial to get in touch with your doctor if you have a history of these habits.

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