RECURRENT APHTHOUS STOMATITIS (Recurrent Mouth Ulcers)
What are the aims of this leaflet?
This leaflet has been written to help you understand more about Recurrent Aphthous Stomatitis
(RAS). It tells you what it is, what causes it, what can be done about it and where you can find out
more about it. What is recurrent aphthous stomatitis (RAS)?
RAS consists of recurrent bouts of one or more painful, rounded or ovoid ulcers. Most aphthous
ulcers last for 10-14 days. It is a common mouth condition affecting up to 20% of the population at
any given time. The severity and frequency of RAS tends to decrease with age.
RAS is classified into three types:
ulcers are the most common type affecting the majority (80%) of people who suffer from mouth ulcers. Minor ulcers occur in crops of about 1 to 5 at a given time and are usually 10mm or less in diameter. These usually appear inside the lips and cheeks, on the tongue and sometimes the floor of the mouth. The ulcers tend to last between 10-14 days and heal without scarring. Major
ulcers are less common and affect 10-15% of patients with RAS. Major ulcers tend to be larger and typically greater than 10mm in diameter. They can occur singly or 2-3 can appear at a time anywhere in the mouth. If the soft palate is involved, swallowing can be difficult. The ulcers may last up to 3 months and some of the larger ulcers leave a scar when healed. Herpetiform
ulcers are the least common type affecting 5-10% of cases. The ulcers are small (1-2mm in diameter) and can occur in clusters of more than 20 at a time which can merge to give larger ulcers. They tend to occur in the front of the mouth particularly under the tongue and on the edges of the tongue. These tend to heal within two weeks without scarring. Despite their name, they are not caused by a herpes virus.
What causes recurrent aphthous stomatitis?
The cause is unknown but there is likely to be an immunological factor involved. There are a
number of underlying or precipitating factors which include anaemia, vitamin deficiencies, stress
and trauma from sharp teeth, dental braces/fillings or a tooth brush. Some people who give up
smoking develop recurrent mouth ulcers and the reason for this is unclear. Occasionally, RAS can
be part of a more widespread disease affecting other parts of the body (eg Behçet's disease).
Recurrent mouth ulcers are not thought to be infectious.
Is recurrent aphthous stomatitis hereditary?
Nearly half the people who suffer from mouth ulcers have a close relative with the same problem. What does recurrent aphthous stomatitis look like?
Recurrent aphthous stomatitis consists of round or oval shaped ulcers with an area of surrounding
redness. The base of an ulcer is typically grey/yellow in colour. Size varies according to the type
of ulcer and this may range from a few millimetres in diameter to greater than one centimetre.
What are the symptoms of recurrent aphthous stomatitis?
The main complaint is pain. This can be made worse by hot, salty, spicy or hard/abrasive food.
Eating and drinking can therefore become difficult. Depending on the site of ulcers, speech can
also be affected. The ulcers occur in recurrent bouts, heal and reoccur with varying time intervals.
A few people are never free from ulcers. How is recurrent aphthous stomatitis diagnosed?
The history and clinical appearance of the ulcers are usually sufficient to confirm the diagnosis of
RAS. Blood tests are often arranged to check for any underlying cause. A biopsy is occasionally
required to rule out other causes of mouth ulceration. Can recurrent aphthous stomatitis be cured?
There is currently no cure for RAS unless an underlying cause is found and corrected. Treatment
aims to relieve the painful symptoms associated with RAS. The frequency and severity of RAS
tends to decrease with age. How can recurrent aphthous stomatitis be treated?
Treatment for RAS aims to relieve discomfort, prevent or reduce secondary infection and
• Topical corticosteroids
are the main treatment for RAS. They can be applied locally to the
mouth and are effective for most patients. These are available as mouthwashes, sprays, and small dissolvable pellets.
• Anaesthetic (analgesic)
mouthwashes, sprays or ‘over-the-counter’ sugar free throat lozenges
can be used if your mouth becomes sore and are particularly helpful if used before meals.
• Use of an antiseptic
mouthwash, spray or gel (e.g. chlorhexidine gluconate) may
be recommended to help reduce any secondary infection and control plaque levels on teeth if toothbrushing is difficult or uncomfortable.
• Tetracycline mouthwashes may be of value for some types of RAS.
• Covering agents
work by forming a mechanical barrier against secondary infection and further
mechanical irritation. These are available as pastes and soluble pellets for application to ulcers.
• Severe cases of RAS may require treatment with a short course of systemic corticosteroids
(i.e. taken in tablet form). Long-term treatment with these drugs is not recommended because of the potential side effects.
• Other types of oral (systemic) therapy
are reserved for severe cases of RAS (especially the
major type) and various drugs have been used as management options to suppress the ulcers by altering the body’s immune system. These can be associated with a number of side effects which should be discussed with your specialist. Regular blood tests are required when taking most of these drugs, particularly during the early stages of treatment.
What can I do?
Spicy, acidic, salty or hard/abrasive foods (e.g. toast and crisps) should be avoided if these make
your mouth sore. To avoid nutritional deficiencies, ensure that you eat a varied diet. It is important
to have a high standard of oral hygiene. Visit your dentist for routine care and for help with sharp
teeth or broken fillings that may trigger your mouth ulcers. Additives in toothpastes, such as
sodium lauryl sulphate, may aggravate your ulcers.
Any single ulcer that persists for longer than 3 weeks despite treatment should be examined by
your dentist (or doctor) who may wish to refer you for a specialist opinion and possible biopsy. Where can I get more information about recurrent aphthous stomatitis?
BSOM/BAD cannot be held responsible for the content of linked websites. Their content (and
even URLs) may change over time.
While every effort has been made to ensure that the information given in this leaflet is accurate,
not every treatment will be suitable or effective for every person. Your own doctor or dentist will
be able to advise in greater detail.
PATIENT INFORMATION LEAFLET
PRODUCED JANUARY 2011
REVIEW DATED JANUARY 2014
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