Canker sores are inflamed spots in your mouth that cause pain and typically heal within a couple of weeks. Oral cancer may cause raised spots or patches in your mouth that worsen over time.

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Almost everybody develops canker sores occasionally. It’s not clear why they occur, but factors that might play a role in their development include:

  • a family history
  • stress
  • hormonal changes
  • a weakened immune system

Oral cancer is strongly associated with smoking or chewing tobacco as well as consuming alcohol.

Canker sores and oral cancer can cause similar symptoms. But people with oral cancer are more likely to have raised patches or hardened areas in their mouth, whereas canker sores are usually small white or yellow sores that cause sharp pain.

Also, canker sores are more likely to develop on your lips or cheeks, whereas the most common place for oral cancer to develop is your tongue.

Canker sores are usually easily identifiable. Doctors can often diagnose them without any specific tests.

Canker sores most often develop on your inner cheeks or lips, but they can develop anywhere in the soft tissue of your mouth. They tend to be small and are often only a few millimeters wide. About 10% of people develop large sores that can be bigger than an inch across, and only about 5% of people develop clusters of pinpoint ulcers called herpetiform canker sores.

Canker sores usually have a white or yellow center. They may have a slightly sunken center with raised edges and a red border. Usually, the border around the ulcer is well defined.

They often cause sharp pain, and you may feel burning or tingling in your mouth before the canker sore becomes visible.

Differences between canker sores and oral cancer

Canker soreOral cancer
Most common locationinner cheeks or lipstongue
Durationunder 1–2 weeks without treatmentgets worse over time without treatment
Painoften sharp painoften not
Usual appearancea round white or yellow sore with a well defined red bordervariable, but often a white or reddish patch that doesn’t heal
Risk factorsstress and immunosuppressionsmoking tobacco and drinking alcohol

Oral cancer has a more variable appearance. For many people, the initial symptom is a persistent mouth sore or patch that doesn’t heal.

Other early symptoms can include:

  • unexplained mouth bleeding
  • changes in your taste or tongue sensation
  • lumps on your lips or tongue or in your mouth
  • changes to the texture of your mouth
  • thickening of your inner cheek
  • a white, red, or mixed-color patch
  • loose teeth

Unlike canker sores, oral cancer usually doesn’t cause sharp pain.

Some common locations it develops are the:

  • tongue
  • lips
  • floor of your mouth

Oral cancer can also spread to other tissues. For example, if the cancer spreads to your lungs, you might have:

Learn more about the appearance of oral cancer.

Oral cancer and canker sores can cause similar symptoms. Generally, canker sores are easily identifiable by their characteristic appearance of a small white or yellow sore with clearly defined edges. Oral cancer is more likely to cause non-healing patches in your mouth.

If you’re not sure if a sore might be cancer, it’s better to err on the side of caution and contact your doctor.

Canker sores most often develop on the inside of your cheeks or lips.

Less often, canker sores develop on the:

  • gums
  • tongue
  • roof of your mouth

Many conditions can cause sores to develop in your mouth. Many are easily treatable, but it’s important to get a proper diagnosis to rule out cancer or another serious condition.

Some potential causes include:

  • Food sensitivities or allergies: Consuming certain foods — such as pineapple, melon, and vinegar — may trigger ulcers in your mouth.
  • Cold sores (fever blisters): Cold sores usually develop on or around your lips. They’re due to herpes simplex viral infection.
  • Oral thrush: Oral thrush is a fungal infection in your mouth that may cause sore areas and white patches on your tongue or other areas in your mouth.
  • Biting or injury: Traumatic injury to your mouth can cause soreness and inflammation that may mimic those of an ulcer or cancer. It’s common to accidentally bite your inner cheek while chewing.
  • Behcet’s disease: Behcet’s disease is an autoimmune condition that can cause sores in your mouth and on your genitals.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Scientists have linked some nutritional deficiencies, such as B vitamin and vitamin D deficiencies, to oral ulcers.
  • HIV: Recurrent and severe canker sores can be an early symptom of HIV infection due to immunosuppression.

A screening test looks for cancer before you develop signs or symptoms. There’s no standard screening for oral cancer for people without symptoms. It’s important to contact your doctor if you have a persistent sore or change in texture in your mouth that doesn’t heal after a couple of weeks.

The outlook for oral cancer is generally better the earlier you start treatment. In 2012–2018, the 5-year relative survival rate in the United States for oral cancer contained to the mouth was 94%. However, this dropped to 38% when the cancer spread to distant tissues.

The 5-year relative survival rate is a measure of how many people with the cancer live for at least 5 years compared with people without the cancer.

Canker sores are ulcers that develop in your mouth. They often heal without treatment within a couple of weeks. Oral cancer tends to get worse over time and might cause raised patches or bumps in your mouth.

It’s important to contact your doctor if a sore in your mouth isn’t healing or if it’s getting worse over time. It’s particularly important to contact your doctor if you have a history of smoking or heavy alcohol consumption, as these are some of the top risk factors for oral cancer.