What is Gingivostomatitis?

Most parents associate a child’s oral health mainly with cavities or brushing habits. However, oral health is tied to our general health in many ways, beyond just good dental hygiene. Gingivostomatitis, also known asorolabial herpes, is just one example of this cross between general and dental health, that as a Mom, I wish I’d been aware of earlier. Here’s what you need to know (via Babycenter, Healthline, and Medline).

Gingivostomatitis is a really long word for a surprisingly common (yet painful) infection of the mouth and gums.   It most frequently occurs after an initial infection with the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1, which causes cold sores – not the other one), but it can also happen after infection with a coxsackie virus (which causes Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease).

Some bacteria (such as Streptococcus or Actinomyces) may also be responsible for a case of gingivostomatitis, or simply a lack of good oral hygiene habits. Viral and bacterial cases are highly contagious.

Baby boy still has healing mouth sores due to gingivostomatitis

Who’s at risk of Gingivostomatitis?

Although Gingivostomatitis can affect anyone, it’s most common among young children between 6 months – 5 years. While it’s hard for a parent to see their child in pain, there’s generally no reason to worry about the infection itself, regardless of its cause. On the rare occasion that hospitalization is required, it tends to be a result of dehydration as the pain and swelling in a severe case can make little ones less inclined to eat or drink. Reach out to your doctor if your child has gone for more than 6 hours without a wet diaper!

Very rarely, if the case of gingivostomatitis is caused by the HSV-1 virus, a complication may occur if the child gets some of the fluids from a cold sore into her eye, resulting in an infection of the cornea called Herpes Simplex Keratitis. If your child has gingivostomatitis and you notice their eyes have gotten red and watery and particularly sensitive to light, schedule a visit with your doctor as soon as possible. This complication can cause lasting damage to the affected eyes if not managed.

Signs and Symptoms of Gingivostomatitis

Gingivostomatitis can be tricky to recognize by parents as it often occurs within the same frame and with similar pain and irritability as normal teething. It can be mild or severe – for example, some little ones may experience the cold sore and low-grade fever, but may not have sores inside their mouths. Common symptoms might include:

  • Small red or gray sores on the inside of the cheeks, gums, tongue, or soft palate – where the sores emerge depends on the type of virus or bacteria responsible
  • Bad breath (in our experience, this happened a few days after her first fever blister popped up)
  • Lack of appetite from the pain
  • Fever
  • Overall discomfort and irritability
  • Inflamed gums that may bleed during normal brushing

Little boy is experiencing discomfort and irritability because of gingivostomatitis

Treatment of Gingivostomatitis

If your child’s case of Gingivostomatitis is caused by a virus, there is unfortunately little to do other than manage their pain and discomfort as best you can. Antibiotics may be prescribed by your doctor if it’s a bacterial case. The mouth sores will likely go away within 2-3 weeks without treatment in either case. The following tips can help provide some relief for your littles while you’re at home:

  • Avoid spicy food or drink, even if they usually eat it – spices can make the sores even more painful
  • Offer food and drink that’s cool and soft, so it won’t hurt them to chew (while not soft, my daughter LOVED sucking on home-made fruit popsicles). Hummus and sugar-free smoothies and pudding are a few great options – you can also try frozen treats these!

Sugar free popsicles may soothe symptoms of gingivostomatitis


  • Avoid citrus or carbonated drinks
  • You can give your child OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, but make sure you follow dosage instructions correctly. If you have any questions about frequency or how much to give, check the label or call your pediatrician.
  • Continue practicing good oral hygiene. If her mouth is hurting, your little one is not likely to want to allow any brushing to happen (mine certainly didn’t!). However, not doing so can cause symptoms to get worse – so even though it might be uncomfortable, keeping the mouth clean is important to help promote healing and even prevent future cases.

Prevention of Gingivostomatitis

Standard hygiene can help prevent the spread of both viral and bacterial gingivostomatitis.

  • Wash your hands after using the bathroom, changing a child’s diaper, and before eating or preparing food.
  • Teach your little ones proper handwashing to help them protect themselves

Unlike HSV-2 which can only be transmitted sexually, HSV-1 can also be transmitted by coming into contact with saliva from an infected person – in children, this is most frequently by sharing toys, utensils, and other similar actions.

Because so many people are carriers for HSV-1 and can transmit the virus without necessarily having active cold sores or other symptoms, it may be difficult to completely protect your child from infection. However, you can try to keep those with active infections from kissing and being in close contact with your child – including yourself, if you are prone to cold sores.

Maintaining good oral hygiene can help prevent gingivostomatitis that’s not viral or bacterial.

  • Brush and your teeth at least twice a day
  • Floss every day

Teaching young kids to maintaining good oral hygiene can help prevent gingivostomatitis

Of course, don’t forget to record symptoms and take pictures of any infection to show the doctor, in your Kinsa app. It’s always a good idea to document whatever illnesses your child faces!

This post was written by Michaela Hayes. Michaela is a public health nerd and WAHM to a 1-year-old toddler.  With a background in international health education and child development, Michaela has leveraged her perpetually wandering feet to promote positive sexual  and family health across the globe. She lives with her husband and daughter in the Bay Area.