6 Things Your Lips Can Tell You About Your Health

A woman with her mouth open. Lips have so much to say about our health.
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It seems we are always fixating on people's mouths, especially if we want a smooch. Our outside environments can take a serious toll on the skin, particularly the lips. But the state of our mouth may say more about the rest of our bodies than we realize — you may not know what, exactly, your lips can tell you about your health, but rest assured, the info is all on your face.

For all the attention paid to celeb pouts like Kylie Jenner's, or Angelina Jolie's, there are still some things we might not realize about these illustrious organs. There are actually two distinct kinds of skin on our lips — the outside part you put lipstick on is called the vermillion, and the inner, wet part is called the mucosal lip, according to the PMFA journal. The vermillion doesn't have the sweat or oil glands the rest of our skin does, which is why it dries out and gets cracked more often than the rest of your body.

But sometimes no matter how well you maintain your pucker, problems can occur. If you find yourself with constant lip issues, they could reveal important information to take to your doctor. Lips might hold the key to some health secrets, and we should definitely heed their warning. These facts will make you want to take a closer look at your kisser.

1. Dry Lips

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We've all experienced dry lips at one time or another. Dr. Susan Massick, a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Bustle that it is the most common illness that affects the lips. "When your skin lacks moisture, it becomes dry — same thing happens on your lips, and they will feel dry and chapped," Dr. Massick says. "Chapped lips can be made worse when people bite or peel the skin off the lips or frequently lick the lips in an attempt to moisten them. In fact, saliva does not moisten the lips — it actually makes them more dry."

This symptom is usually caused by basic dehydration or extreme and drying weather. If chugging H2O or keeping them moisturized with plain emollients doesn't make the problem go away, the discomfort may be caused by an allergy or contact dermatitis, aka irritation from an external source.

"Lip licking dermatitis can occur as a result frequent licking of the skin and the irritation to the skin from the saliva," Dr. Massick says. "Some people have sensitivity to lip balm ingredients and this can lead to dry, red and irritated lips. People should be particularly careful if the lip balm that they use stings when they apply it — this can actually make things worse and more inflamed."

If you have consistently dry lips, try not to lick them no matter how sexy it looks, as saliva may cause them to peel more.

2. Cracked At The Corners

Developing cracks in the corners of your mouth is fairly common and incredibly unpleasant. But what do they say about your health? These cracks can be caused by a number of things. One, acnitic cheilitis, is "precancerous changes to the lip usually from chronic sun exposure which runs the risk of skin cancer if left untreated," Dr. Massick says. "Patients will often notice persistently dry, scaly patches that never heal despite use of moisturizers."

Angular cheilitis ("cheilitis" just means lip inflammation) is a condition signified by painful sores at the corner and sometimes inside your mouth, which can be caused by malnutrition or a fungal infection (and can be treated with an anti-fungal cream). Having conditions like Down's Syndrome, diabetes, auto-immune diseases like Crohn's disease or Sjogren's syndrome, or dry mouth can increase your risk of getting angular cheilitis, according to SELF, as can certain vitamin deficiencies, "particularly vitamin B and zinc deficiencies," per Dr. Massick.

3. Cold Sores

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Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is estimated to affect nearly 70% of people under age 50 around the world. Herpes typically shows symptoms right when you first contract it, and then lies dormant in your system, but can be reactivated by stress, lack of sleep, strain on your immune system, sun exposure, or lack of nutrition. "The recurrent episodes start with a prodromal burning sensation, followed by a small cluster of blisters that ulcerate and crust over the course of one to three days. Healing occurs generally in seven to 10 days," Dr. Massick says.

Once you feel the tell-tale tingling of a cold sore coming, talk to your doc about a medication to suppress it or a topical cream to heal it. (And of course, an active cold sore can spread herpes to others, so be mindful of that before you smooch your boo.)

4. Pale Lips

If your lips have gone from their typical rosy red to a pale pink, it could signify a vitamin deficiency or even skin cancer. Sudden paleness can be a sign of iron-deficiency anemia, which is when your blood cells don't have the materials they need to make hemoglobin, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Heavy menstrual periods or other blood loss, as well as nutrient loss, can lead to anemia.

Dr. Massick says that changes in lip color can also be a sign of skin cancer. Whitening of the skin is "more commonly seen in a squamous cell skin cancer," while a darkening may be linked to melanoma. No matter what, a change in lip color should be discussed with your doctor.

5. Swelling Or Tenderness

If you're not using an irritating lip plumper to give your smackers a bee-stung look, a naturally swollen pout could be a sign of an allergic reaction or of any myriad health issues. As one 2018 study put it, lip swelling "may be an important symptom of either systemic or local diseases," from allergies to tumors. A mildly swollen mouth could be due to an allergy to a brand of lipstick, toothpaste, or face wash, and you should swap out the product you suspect is causing the problem. If the swelling doesn't go away or impedes your ability to breathe or eat, see a doctor as soon as you can.

6. Burning Lips

If you are experiencing burning lips, and you haven't eaten a spicy curry in the last ten minutes, it could be a signal of a greater issue. Burning in the lips, throat, and tongue has been linked to B-12 deficiency, as well as depression and menopause. You can also quite literally burn your lips through sun exposure, which can potentially lead to skin cancer. Dr. Massick advises people to "protect the lips from the sun: use sunscreens even on the lips (sunscreen sticks tend to be easy to apply in this location), reapply after a few hours if needed; wear protective hats" to avoid this uncomfortable kind of sunburn.

As with anything related to your health, if you're uncomfortable or in pain for more than a few days, or if you notice that your body isn't healing itself, bring your symptoms to your doctor. "I would recommend seeing a dermatologist if you notice a change in the lip that persists over four weeks," Dr. Massick says. For most cases of dry lips, drinking extra water and staying extra moisturized should be enough to get your pout back in business, but it's always helpful to rule out any underlying issues.


Dr. Susan Massick, MD, a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

Studies Referenced:

Błochowiak, K. J., Kamiński, B., Witmanowski, H., & Sokalski, J. (2018). Selected presentations of lip enlargement: clinical manifestation and differentiation. Postepy dermatologii i alergologii, 35(1), 18–25. doi:10.5114/ada.2018.73160

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