Canker sores: these minor annoyances can become an issue for brass players, and over the years I’ve dealt with my fair share of them. First, the disclaimer: I am not a physician, and the following material is based purely on my own experience. It is not meant to be medical advice – when in doubt consult a medical doctor! That being said, I have found a few things that seem to help me (and my students) overcome these painful sores.
According to WebMD, canker sores are “small shallow ulcers that appear in the mouth and often make eating and talking uncomfortable.” The WebMD entry goes on to describe two different kinds of sores, simple and complex, the former being the most common. For most people, canker sores hurt for a couple of days and then disappear. For brass players, though, the repeated contact between the sores and the teeth/gums (depending on where the sore is located) can cause them to linger on for several days, even up to a week or more. Since taking several days off from playing isn’t usually an option, most of us simply have to grin and bear it until the sore(s) finally heal. Canker sores can be brought on by stress, although in my case most of the sores I’ve had have developed from small cuts in my mouth, either from accidentally biting my cheek while eating or scraping my gums or cheek with a piece of sharp food like a potato chip or toasted bread. I’ve never had anything serious enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, but if you have several sores at once or a sore that lasts for multiple weeks you should definitely consult your physician. After some trial and error, I now follow these basic rules to help prevent and treat my canker sores.
- Switch to a toothpaste which doesn’t contain sodium lauryl sulfate. This common ingredient in many toothpastes can promote the formation of canker sores – for more info see this page on the Mayo Clinic’s website. I stopped using toothpastes with this ingredient over a year ago, and since then I’ve noticed a marked decrease in the frequency and duration of canker sores. One brand that is reasonably priced and easy to find is Burt’s Bees.
- Chew carefully! As previously noted, cheek biting has caused a number of sores for me, and taking a bit more care when eating has helped me prevent future injuries. What can I say, I enjoy eating, and sometimes I get in a hurry! If you do happen to bite your cheek, make sure to take extra special care that you don’t bite the same place again as this will aggravate the sore.
- Keep your mouth clean. This is a good rule of thumb whether you’re prone to canker sores or not. Brush after every meal when possible, and use a good mouthwash as well. If I get a canker sore I like to rinse my mouth with equal parts water and hydrogen peroxide. Follow the directions for use on the bottle of hydrogen peroxide. There are some expensive mouthwashes out there which claim to be formulated specifically for canker sores, but if you look at the bottles carefully you will see that the active ingredient is, you guessed it, hydrogen peroxide.
- Canker Covers: I have had success with treating canker sores using these patches, which protect the sore and dissolve over the course of 8 or so hours. They allow you to eat and drink without running the risk of further aggravating it, although I would not recommend playing with one of them in your mouth. For one it feels pretty weird, and I would imagine that parts of the patch could find their way into your horn if you aren’t careful.
That’s about it for my tips on treating canker sores – if you have run across other helpful remedies feel free to comment below. I seem to remember there being some information on homeopathic remedies for canker sores and other minor irritations in Broken Embouchures, by Lucinda Lewis, but I have misplaced my copy at the moment so I can’t be sure.