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Oral frustrations: A few common conditions

Orange County, Calif.-area dentists Dr. Nick Salvati and Dr. Pooneh Sabo, and head/neck cancer surgery specialist Dr. William B. Armstrong offer their insight on a few common conditions.

- Canker sores: A recurring problem for 20 to 50 percent of the population, canker sores may be caused by a bacterium that lays dormant in the salivary glands, but releases toxins during times of mental and physical stress, trauma to the mouth, menstruation, etc., Salvati said. The result is a painful ulcer often the size of a dime on the soft mucosa (cheeks, inner lip, floor of the mouth, side of the tongue) inside the mouth.

Certain spicy foods can irritate an existing ulcer as well as cause a new one to form. While canker sores typically heal on their own, you can try using over-the-counter numbing treatments like Anbesol or prescription medications that can reduce pain and healing time.

Prevention tips include reducing stress and chances for oral trauma (for instance, limit gum chewing to prevent accidental cheek biting). Vitamin supplements like lysine may also help.

- Cold sores: Cold sores, or fever blisters, are a recurring problem for about 40 percent of the population, Salvati said. They're caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), which is believed to be transmitted through respiratory secretions like coughing and sneezing, sexual or physical contact, and through the placenta at birth.

Cold sores typically appear as single or small groups of painful blisters on the roof of the mouth, gums, lips and nose. They can recur on a regular basis or randomly.

Treatment options include prescription antiviral medications and laser therapies. To prevent them, avoid eating or drinking from other people's utensils or cups. Also, avoid touching the sore so you don't spread it to other people or to other areas of your body, like your eyes.

- Oral cancer: Cancer in the oral cavity can look like a white or red lesion, Armstrong said. It is often painless, but can also be painful and may bleed. You may think you bit your lip or tongue, but it doesn't heal within a week or two.

Risk factors for developing oral cancer include cigarettes, chewing tobacco and alcohol. Treatment options depend on the extent of the tumor, and include surgery or radiation therapy.

- Gum disease: Occurring in about 80 percent of Americans, gum disease is an inflammation of the gums, Sabo said. Since there's often no pain associated with gum disease, many people have it without knowing it.

Symptoms can include red and inflamed bleeding gums, and foul odor in the mouth. In more advanced cases, teeth can become loose. Gum disease is caused by plaque and bacteria building up under the gums.

Treatment options include basic dental cleaning, deep cleaning, bone grafts to stabilize loose teeth and/or gum grafts.