• Inflammation of mucous lining of any of the structures in the mouth, cheeks, lip, tongue, gingiva, and floor or roof of the mouth. Usually painful and associated with redness, swelling, and sometimes bleeding. Affects people of all ages. May be caused by localized injury/irritation, or a manifestation of systemic conditions
  • System(s) affected: skin/exocrine; ENT; oropharynx; dental


  • Children
    • Primary herpetic infections (age 6 months to 5 years) (most common)
    • Hand-foot-mouth disease, herpangina
    • Angular stomatitis
    • Aphthous stomatitis
  • Teenagers and adults
    • Aphthous stomatitis (peak onset age 10 to 19 years) (most common)
    • Vincent stomatitis (also known as Vincent disease or acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis)
    • Behçet disease (orogenital lesions)
    • Nicotinic stomatitis
    • Chronic ulcerative stomatitis (white middle-aged women)

  • Very common: herpetic stomatitis, hand-foot-mouth disease, and recurrent aphthous stomatitis (RAS)
  • Common: herpangina, nicotinic stomatitis, and denture-related stomatitis
  • Remaining causes are uncommon or rare.

Etiology and Pathophysiology

  • Allergy: foods, drugs, contact (some erythema multiforme)
  • Nutritional deficiencies: vitamin B6 (angular stomatitis), vitamin B12, folate, zinc, magnesium, vitamin C, iron deficiencies
  • Malnutrition (gangrenous stomatitis; internationally known as “noma”)
  • Viral: herpes simplex I and II (herpetic stomatitis), coxsackie A (herpangina and hand-foot-mouth disease)
  • Bacterial (scarlatina)
  • Autoimmune disorders (Crohn, Behçet, SLE, celiac, erythema multiforme)
  • Neoplastic/hematologic (anemia, leukemia, cyclic neutropenia)
  • Smoking (nicotinic stomatitis)
  • Hormonal (possibly RAS)
  • Uncertain (RAS, Vincent stomatitis, recurrent scarifying stomatitis)
  • Traumatic: (mechanical, chemical, or thermal) for example, ill-fitting dentures
  • Uremic (uremic/nephritic)
  • Chemotherapy or radiation

Polymorphisms causing high interleukin 1p (IL-1p) and tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) production increase risk for RAS (1,2),(3)[B].

Risk Factors

  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Familial association
  • Dietary deficiencies (iron, folate, vitamins B6, vitamins B12)
  • Chronic systemic disease; immune deficiencies
  • Poor-fitting dentures
  • Smoking
  • Cancer therapies

General Prevention

  • Avoid causative factors (see “Etiology and Pathophysiology”).
  • Herpetic stomatitis; shedding may occur for 2 weeks for primary infection, 60 hours for recurrent infection.
  • Good oral hygiene
  • Good nutrition: Daily multivitamin does not reduce RAS episodes (4)[B].
  • Avoid/discontinue smoking.
  • Properly fitting dentures

Pediatric Considerations
Common causes in the pediatric population (e.g., herpetic [primary], hand-foot-mouth disease, herpangina, traumatic ulcers)

Geriatric Considerations
Certain etiologies are more likely in the geriatric population (e.g., ill-fitting dentures, nutritional deficiencies).

Commonly Associated Conditions

  • Pregnancy may bring on recurrent ulcerative stomatitis.
  • AIDS: associated with multiple, severe oral lesions
  • Aphthous ulcers may be associated with Crohn disease or celiac disease.



  • Patient will complain of burning sensation, intolerance to temperature, and irritation with certain foods.
  • Detailing the onset, progression, and duration of each lesion helps to diagnose localized versus systemic lesions.

Physical Exam

The physical exam should include comprehensive oral examination. Examine and palpate the lips, tongue, cheeks, and hard and soft palate as well as cervical, submandibular, and submental lymph nodes. Erythema and edema are the usual oral manifestations, often with ulcerations. Some will have constitutional symptoms: low-grade fever, malaise, lymphadenopathy, and headache. Pain will vary. Below is a list of specific characteristics:

  • Allergic stomatitis
    • Intense shiny erythema
    • Slight swelling
    • Itching
    • Dryness
    • Burning
    • Common allergens include nuts; shellfish; cinnamon; fruits; metals; dental materials; and ingredients in toothpaste, mouthwash, and gum.
  • Herpetic stomatitis
    • Same as allergic stomatitis; may have low-grade fever and easy bleeding
  • RAS
    • Same as allergic stomatitis; often multiple lesions
  • Vincent infection: necrotic ulceration of interdental papillae and mucous membrane
  • Pseudomembranous stomatitis: membrane-like exudate
  • Mucous lesions accompanying systemic disease
    • Mucous patches (syphilis)
    • Strawberry tongue (Kawasaki disease, scarlet fever, staphylococcal toxic shock syndrome)
    • Koplik spots (measles)
    • Ulcers (erythema multiforme)
    • Smooth, fire red, painful (pellagra)
    • Varicella zoster

Differential Diagnosis

  • Hand-foot-mouth disease, herpangina
  • RAS (note: can be associated with colitis)
  • Erythema multiforme/Stevens-Johnson syndrome
  • Behçet disease
  • Angular stomatitis
  • Noma (gangrenous stomatitis)
  • Scarlatina (scarlet fever)
  • Cancers of oral mucosa
  • Uremic stomatitis
  • Reactive arthritis
  • Pemphigus/pemphigoid
  • Squamous cell cancer
  • Cyclic neutropenia
  • Burning mouth syndrome
  • PFAPA (periodic fever, aphthous ulcers, pharyngitis, and adenopathy)

Diagnostic Tests & Interpretation

  • Diagnosis relies on clinical symptoms and history. Testing is not routinely performed.
  • Usually none needed; consider the following for differential diagnosis:
    • Tzanck test of historic interest only; herpes simplex virus (HSV) culture (from vesicles)
    • Serologic test for syphilis

Initial Tests (lab, imaging)

Tests Considerations
If not resolving in 7 to 14 days or getting worse, consider CBC; cultures to determine secondary infection

Diagnostic Procedures/Surgery
  • Biopsy if persistent/recurrent/suspicious
  • Direct fluorescent antibody testing is useful in the differential diagnosis between RAS and bullous skin diseases (5)[B].

Test Interpretation
Biopsy suspicious lesion or lesions that fail to heal or chronically recur to rule out oral granulomatosis, tuberculosis, hematologic cancer, or vasculitis.


  • To date, no strong evidence for broadly applicable efficacy of a single treatment. This likely reflects the poor methodologic rigor of trials and lack of studies rather than the true effect of the intervention. It is also recognized that, in clinical practice, individual drugs appear to work for individual patients (3)[A].
  • Treatments target the causative factors. If cause is allergic, identification and removal of allergen is critical. For infectious causes, regimens include antibiotics or antifungals. Steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs used for systemic conditions with stomatitis manifestation. If the cause of stomatitis is due to medical treatment or cancer therapy, management needs to be more aggressive (5)[A].

General Measures

  • In most cases, treatment of symptoms only, analgesics
  • Severe cases may require parenteral fluids, particularly in children.
  • Good oral hygiene
  • Topical anesthesia
  • Oral rinses such as half-strength hydrogen peroxide, chlorhexidine gluconate. Avoid oral rinses containing alcohol.
  • Smoking cessation
  • Refit dentures; daytime wear only
  • Avoid specific allergens.
  • Replace vitamin deficiencies.
  • Treat malnutrition, if present.


  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen for analgesia
  • Steroids, colchicine, and cytotoxic drugs for Behçet disease
  • 2% viscous lidocaine (Xylocaine) swish and spit for local discomfort; max of 8 doses/day
  • Precautions: Toxic dose of topical lidocaine is uncertain, but likely only 25–33% of dose may have significant absorption from open ulcers or mucous membrane.
  • Liquid diphenhydramine (Benadryl) by mouth or swish and spit, for allergic reactions
  • “Miracle mouth rinses”: various combinations of the following in equal parts; use swish and spit QID
    • Maalox or Mylanta, diphenhydramine, lidocaine
    • Maalox or Mylanta, diphenhydramine, Carafate
    • Duke’s: nystatin, diphenhydramine, hydrocortisone
  • Steroid oral rinses or topical preparations for aphthous ulcers (Kenalog in Orabase) or steroids injected into lesions for severe cases
  • Antibiotics for gangrenous stomatitis (penicillin and metronidazole are reasonable first-line agents; often start with IV)
  • Acyclovir 200 to 800 mg 5 times per day for 7 to 14 days for herpetic stomatitis
  • Sucralfate (Carafate) suspension 1 tsp swish in mouth or place on ulcers QID (helpful)
  • Topical 0.2% hyaluronic acid for recurrent aphthous ulcers
  • Chemical cauterization with silver nitrate for aphthous stomatitis (treatment can cause burning sensation)
  • Thalidomide 200 mg 1 to 2 times per day for 3 to 8 weeks in HIV-positive patients with nonhealing aphthous ulcers (extreme caution for birth defects)
  • For candidiasis: nystatin PO suspension 400,000 U (4 mL) QID for 10 days; swish and swallow (1 mL QID for infants)
  • Antifungal ointment (e.g., nystatin [Mycostatin]) for candidiasis-complicating angular stomatitis
  • For prevention or reducing severity of mucositis with cancer treatments, these agents have some evidence of benefit: allopurinol, Aloe vera, amifostine, cryotherapy, glutamine (IV), honey, keratinocyte growth factor, laser, and polymyxin/tobramycin/amphotericin (PTA) antibiotic pastille/paste (6)[A].
  • Contraindications: allergy to specific medication

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

  • Avoiding toothpaste with sodium lauryl sulfate reduces duration of RAS (7)[B].
  • Replenish vitamin deficiencies.

Inpatient Considerations

IV Fluids
In severe cases involving dehydration owing to oral ulcerations

For infants with painful stomatitis, feeding can be particularly challenging. Topical analgesic agents should be used prior to bottlefeeding. Nasogastric feeds or parenteral, as needed

Ongoing Care

Follow-up Recommendations

Patient Monitoring
Lesions need to be followed until resolved. Biopsy if they fail to resolve, continuously recur, or appear suspicious.


Avoid spicy, acidic, sharp, hard, and dry foods. Keep well hydrated.

Patient Education

Patient handouts


  • Herpetic/hand-foot-mouth disease/erythema multiforme: self-limited—1 to 3 weeks
  • RAS: 7- to 14-day course per episode
  • Vincent: may progress to fascial space infection with airway compromise or sepsis
  • Nicotinic: resolves with smoking cessation
  • Denture: resolves with proper fitting, careful oral hygiene, and daytime-only denture wear
  • Stevens-Johnson: resolution in ~6 weeks with adequate supportive care
  • Recurrent ulcerative: recurs over time, but overall prognosis is good
  • Recurrent scarifying: Occasional patients suffer continuous ulcers; others have recurrence with eventual scarring. Prognosis is otherwise good.
  • Behçet disease may recur for several years. Overall prognosis is related to other aspects of the disease.
  • Angular: After correction of mechanical problems, allergic disorders, and nutritional deficiencies, the prognosis is good.
  • Gangrenous: most serious stomatitis, requiring aggressive treatment with IV antibiotics and débridement to avoid death
  • Scarlatina: Prognosis is related to other manifestations of the disease.
  • Uremic: depends on the underlying renal disease


  • Recurrent scarifying stomatitis may result in intraoral scarring with restriction of oral mobility.
  • Behçet disease may result in visual loss, pneumonia, colitis, vasculitis, large-artery aneurysms, thrombophlebitis, or encephalitis.
  • Gangrenous stomatitis may lead to facial disfigurement and even death.
  • Scarlet fever may result in cardiac disease.
  • Herpetic stomatitis may be complicated by ocular or CNS involvement.

Additional Reading

  • Brocklehurst P, Tickle M, Glenny AM, et al. Systemic interventions for recurrent aphthous stomatitis (mouth ulcers). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;(9):CD005411. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005411.pub2.
  • Le Doare K, Hullah E, Challacombe S, et al. Fifteen-minute consultation: a structured approach to the management of recurrent oral ulceration in a child. Arch Dis Child Educ Pract Ed. 2014;99(3):82–86.
  • S’lebioda Z, Szponar E, Kowalska A. Recurrent aphthous stomatitis: genetic aspects of etiology. Postepy Dermatol Alergo. 2013;30(2):96–102.



  • A69.1 Other Vincent’s infections
  • B00.2 Herpesviral gingivostomatitis and pharyngotonsillitis
  • B08.4 Enteroviral vesicular stomatitis with exanthem
  • B08.5 Enteroviral vesicular pharyngitis
  • K05.10 Chronic gingivitis, plaque induced
  • K12.0 Recurrent oral aphthae
  • K12.1 Other forms of stomatitis


  • 054.2 Herpetic gingivostomatitis
  • 074.0 Herpangina
  • 074.3 Hand, foot, and mouth disease
  • 101 Vincent’s angina
  • 523.10 Chronic gingivitis, plaque induced
  • 528.00 Stomatitis and mucositis, unspecified
  • 528.2 Oral aphthae


  • 186659004 Herpangina
  • 186963008 Vincent’s angina
  • 266108008 hand foot and mouth disease (disorder)
  • 426965005 aphthous ulcer of mouth (disorder)
  • 57920007 herpetic gingivostomatitis (disorder)
  • 61170000 stomatitis (disorder)

Clinical Pearls

  • Stomatitis is often self-limiting and requires only pain relief treatment and supportive care.
  • Consider broad differential diagnosis to determine etiology.
  • Treat all underlying conditions.
  • Depending on geographic location, age of patient, and comorbidities, be prepared to treat worsening or severe causes aggressively.


Hugh J. Silk, MD, MPH, FAAFP
Sheila O. Stille, DMD
Sara J. Fine, MD


Figure 12-1

Aphthous stomatitis. A small punched-out erosion has erythema surrounding a yellow-white center.
Figure 12-2

Aphthous stomatitis. Larger, more extensive aphthae are seen in this woman, who has Behçet's syndrome.


  1. Guimarães AL, Correia-Silva Jde F, Sá AR, et al. Investigation of functional gene polymorphisms IL-1 beta, IL-6, IL-10 and TNF-alpha in individuals with recurrent aphthous stomatitis. Arch Oral Biol. 2007;52(3):268–272. [PMID:17052682]
  2. Liang MW, Neoh CY. Oral aphthosis: management gaps and recent advances. Ann Acad Med Singapore. 2012;41(10):463–470. [PMID:23138144]
  3. Belenguer-Guallar I, Jiménez-Soriano Y, Claramunt-Lozano A. Treatment of recurrent aphthous stomatitis. A literature review. J Clin Exp Dent. 2014;6(2):e168–e174. [PMID:24790718]
  4. Lalla RV, Choquette LE, Feinn RS, et al. Multivitamin therapy for recurrent aphthous stomatitis: a randomized, double-masked, placebo-controlled trial. J Am Dent Assoc. 2012;143(4):370–376. [PMID:22467697]
  5. Usatine RP, Tinitigan R. Nongenital herpes simplex virus. Am Fam Physician. 2010;82(9):1075–1082. [PMID:21121552]
  6. Worthington HV, Clarkson JE, Bryan G, et al. Interventions for preventing oral mucositis for patients with cancer receiving treatment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(12):CD000978. [PMID:21154347]
  7. Shim YJ, Choi JH, Ahn HJ, et al. Effect of sodium lauryl sulfate on recurrent aphthous stomatitis: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Oral Dis. 2012;18(7):655–660. [PMID:22435470]

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