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Mouth ulcers linked to stress, anxiety, depression | Why mouth ulcers develop

Studies show that oral health is tightly connected to our overall health. Researchers also know there’s a link between oral health and our wellbeing.

Nearly 1 in 4 South Dakota adults report that they experience anxiety due to the condition of their mouth and teeth. Conditions like stress, distress, anxiety, depression and loneliness are linked with poorer oral health.

The connections between our mental health and mouth ulcers – more commonly known as canker sores - haven’t been explored thoroughly. That is, until a team of international researchers gathered genes from thousands of individuals around the world experiencing this oral condition.

What causes mouth ulcers?

Mouth ulcers are referred to in the medical community as “aphthous ulcers.” Stress is a common cause of mouth ulcers, and a recent study points to the relationship between mental health and oral health. “The researchers found a significant correlation between experiencing mouth ulcers and depressive symptoms.” 

Mouth ulcers are commonly caused by a minor injury to the mouth (including bites and ill-fitting dental appliances), food sensitivities, hormonal shifts, and inflammatory diseases.  Generally, mouth ulcers will go away on their own within one or two weeks. If you’ve had a mouth ulcer for longer than two weeks, contact your dentist for an appointment to help identify and treat the cause.

Treating mouth ulcer pain

There is no cure for mouth ulcers, and treatment isn’t usually needed since they go away on their own.  But they can be uncomfortable, and there are a few ways to ease the pain:

  • Over-the counter ointments;
  • Basic water and baking soda mouth rinse;
  • Avoid toothpaste and mouthwash with sodium lauryl sulfate, as it may take longer for the ulcer to heal
  • Avoid spicy and acidic foods

If you have large or multiple mouth ulcers, your dentist may prescribe medications that treat the symptoms, or even chemically cauterize the ulcer.

New research connects mental health and mouth ulcers

Historically, researchers thought mouth ulcers were mostly a hereditary predisposition, but a recent study suggests a more complex genetic picture.

A team of international researchers gathered genes from nearly a half million people around the world. Their genes and other environmental factors were examined to see how they contributed to mouth ulcers.

In addition to having self-reported depression in common, researchers identified 97 common genes shared between those who experience mouth ulcers. This new pool of genetic data allows researchers to further investigate what influences this oral condition and how it can be treated.

Most of these genes had to do with the body’s immune system function. This suggests that the individuals developing mouth ulcers have similar genetic makeup that could be influencing their oral health.

This study is significant because it furthers the concept that our overall health – including mental health - influences the health of our mouths, and vice versa.