News Release

April 2, 2004

Contact: Maureen McGuire, 860-679-4523

Take Care of Your Lips

Farmington, Conn. - Think it’s just a “cold sore?” Think again, cautions Ellen Eisenberg, D.M.D., director of oral and maxillofacial pathology at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

“Some sores, white spots, scabs or crusts on the lip can be signs of serious health problems, especially if they don’t heal naturally within a few days,” Dr. Eisenberg says. “Any persistent change in the color or texture of the lips needs to be checked by an oral pathologist or a dermatologist.”

In the most serious scenarios, non-healing lesions or changes in the color and surface texture of the lips can be signs of possible chronic infections, immune disorders or even cancer, Dr. Eisenberg adds.

“That’s why it’s so important to seek a dentist’s or physician’s attention if you have a sore on your lip that does not clear up quickly or a lesion that heals and then recurs,” Dr. Eisenberg advises. “If you are diagnosed with a common, less serious lip problem, it’s also important to treat that condition appropriately and promptly, and learn how to prevent it from returning.”

Among the most common lip problems are:

  • Traumatic lesions or ulcers: These result from local injuries, including accidents. “Often, it’s the patient’s own teeth that are responsible for these lesions. Habitual lip ‘chewing’ can perpetuate benign, traumatic lip lesions, and chronic licking or sucking on the lips, another common habit, can add insult to injury,” Dr. Eisenberg says. “Paradoxically, the over-wetting with saliva of the outer lips due to chronic lip licking can actually lead to harmful dryness or even infection of the lips, with peeling, cracking and discomfort. Avoiding re-injury and excessive drying will usually allow such lesions to heal within a couple of weeks, but admittedly, habits are difficult to break, so recurrences are possible,” she adds.
  • Yeast infections: These can be brought on by a variety of causes, including antibiotic treatment, and dryness of the mouth. Dryness can be caused by a number of medications, and can result in an upset in the delicate microbial balance inside the mouth. Yeast infections of the lips usually present themselves as chronic fissures, redness and crustiness at the angles of the mouth.
  • Recurrent Herpes simplex virus infection: This is a commonly occurring condition that leads to episodic outbreaks of “cold sores,” also referred to as “fever blisters,” which are benign blistering lesions that last for a week to 10 days. These lesions are potentially infectious to persons with whom the patient comes in close contact. Individuals who get recurrent herpes lip lesions tend to experience outbreaks under certain circumstances that act as unique triggers. Usually fevers, menstruation, stress of various kinds, exposure to the sun or intensely cold environments can bring on recurrences.

Once a lip problem is properly diagnosed, treatment options are relatively straightforward, Dr. Eisenberg stresses. However, some lip lesions are not as diagnostically “clear cut,” and require a biopsy for diagnosis.

If a lip lesion is ultimately found to be attributable to something such as habitual licking or chewing on the lip, in terms of treatment, Dr. Eisenberg’s rule is that “less is more.”

“Typically, I advise patients not to even use soap, but to wash the lips with a slightly moistened wash cloth and to keep lips lubricated with plain, unflavored lip balms throughout the day and night,” she says, noting that patients can make problems worse by using too many over-the-counter remedies.

“It’s so important not to over-do treatments. I have seen so-called therapeutic products make existing problems much worse and actually alter the anatomy of the lips which, too often, can perpetuate the problem,” she says.

To avoid common lip problems, such as chapped lips, Dr. Eisenberg advises using a simple, unflavored lip balm year round. “Avoid products with extra cosmetics or medications that can actually make lips more dry, itchy and irritated.”

During the spring and summer months, Dr. Eisenberg recommends that protective measures be taken to avoid the damaging effects of sun exposure. These include wearing a hat with a visor, using lip balms and skin lotions with sun-blocking agents and avoiding sunbathing. She warns that the lower lip is an especially vulnerable site for developing precancerous or cancerous lesions.

“Fair skinned, middle aged to older individuals who have spent lots of time outdoors over the course of many years are at highest risk for developing lip cancers,” she says. “But everyone should be very careful to protect the lips and skin especially when they’re out on a boat, or at the seashore or near a pool, because the reflection of sunlight from the water can be quite intense. Blistering burns are the most destructive overall,” she adds.

For more information, call the Health Center at 860-679-3170 or 800-535-6232.

UConn Health includes the schools of medicine and dental medicine, the UConn Medical Group, University Dentists, and John Dempsey Hospital. Home to Bioscience Connecticut, UConn Health pursues a mission of providing outstanding health care education in an environment of exemplary patient care, research and public service. More information about UConn Health is available at

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