Are Canker Sores the Same as Cold Sores?

People frequently use the terms canker sore and cold sore synomously, but they are not the same thing. Although canker sores and cold sores may appear the same at first glance, there are distinctive differences. Canker sores are caused by damage to the mouth, foods, or an underlying disease, while cold sores are caused by the herpes virus. Eventually, cold sores become crusted over while canker sores simply go away. The pain associated with cold sores is generally more severe. In order to better understand all the differences, it helps to provide a detailed explanation of each type of mouth sore.

What Is Oral Herpes?

herpes on mouthThis is an infection in the mouth caused by the herpes simplex virus. Herpes is a common virus, affecting most people by adulthood at some subtype level. The human body can fight off many subtypes of the herpes virus, while other types are not manageable. Herpes can spread from one person to another by touching skin, mucous membranes, or saliva (e.g. kissing or eating the same foods or drinks).

The most common symptom of oral herpes is a sore on the mouth, commonly referred to as a cold sore. The sores generally appear along the lips, under the nose, and on the side of the mouth. Because they form on the outside of the mouth, the sores can cause a person to be self- conscious about his or her appearance. At the beginning stage of oral herpes, a person will experience itching, tingling, burning, or pain in or around the mouth. Blisters in clusters erupt and as they break down, their appearance changes from red to yellow and they scab or crust over.

There are two main subtypes of oral herpes that produce visible mouth sores. Herpes simplex virus type 1 or herpes-1 causes 80% of oral sores. The remaining herpes cases are caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 or herpes-2.

Stages of Herpes

The oral herpes virus has three stages of development from contraction to appearance. At the first stage, many people may not exhibit any symptoms, which makes it hard to determine how the virus was contracted. The second stage is the latency period in which the virus moves to nerve tissue in the spine where it reproduces but then becomes inactive. The final stage is called recurrence, in which the virus reactivates, causing physical symptoms due to stress, either physical or emotional.

What are Canker Sores?

Canker sores are lesions that can appear inside the oral cavity, including the inner surface of the lips and cheeks, base of the gums, tongue, or soft palate. The medical name for this type of sore is aphthous ulcer. The painful sores are normally white or yellow in color with a red border or halo. A number of factors can cause them, such as a tissue injury from a sharp tooth surface or braces, or even stress. Another cause is foods with a high acidic content like strawberries, oranges, lemons, and tomatoes. Medical issues such as Celiac disease, Crohn's disease, or an impaired immune system may also trigger the sores. For more information on underlying causes, click here.

How to tell the difference between a cold sore and canker sore

Differentiating the type of sore you have is essential to choosing the right treatment and taking necessary precautions. The symptoms, appearance, and location of the sores provide clues since they differ. While it is not a visible factor, cold sores are contagious and can be spread easily to other people, so proper safety measures must be followed.

Cold Sore Signs & Symptoms

Canker Sore Signs & Symptoms


Treating a canker sore is normally very easy. There are many over-the-counter medications that help ease the pain and enable quicker healing than without treatment of any kind. For more information on treatment, click here.

A cold sore can also be treated by leaving it alone or with over-the-counter topical ointments and creams. However, if the sores are extremely painful and take a long time to go away, this may warrant medical attention. A doctor may need to prescribe a stronger ointment or prescription pills. Cold sores can reoccur due to the herpes simplex virus. Once a person is infected, the virus stays in the body and cannot be completely cured. Getting medical attention can help reduce the frequency of outbreaks.