Dry or chapped lips are often the most prevalent during the cold winter months when the humidity levels drop and our homes become dry from the use of heat. This condition can start out as a mild annoyance and quickly become a painful situation with a risk of infection. Children and the elderly are often at a higher risk for developing chapping and cracking due to either age related changes, or in children, the inability to properly care for themselves.
As with any medical condition, elderly patients who may be suffering from dementia or another condition that limits communication may not be able to describe or indicate symptoms.
However, there are a few things to watch out for and steps that you can take to treat and prevent dry, chapped and cracked lips.
Symptoms of Chapped and Dry Lips
- Dryness of the lips as well as the area surrounding the mouth
- Inflammation and redness.
- A tingling or burning sensation.
- Tightness, peeling and cracking when speaking or smiling.
- Excessive licking may lead to chapping that extends outside the lip line, creating a ring around the mouth.
There are a variety of factors that can contribute to the occurrence of dry or chapped lips, including:
- Prolonged exposure to inclimate weather that may cause the occurrence of windburn or sunburn.
- Medications, particularly those used to treat acne as these medications typically promote drying as a way to deal with pimples and blemishes.
- Allergies to not only environmental factors but to skin care products and cosmetics.
- Dehydration as a result of illness or lack of fluids.
- Dry, cool weather paired with low humidity, or being exposed to harsh, cold wind.
- Smoking or excessive drinking.
- Dental disease or other dental related issues like over or under-bite.
- Dry Mouth, which can occur through the aging process, or as a result of medications or an illness.
- A pre-existing skin condition such as eczema.
- Underlying health issues such as diabetes, anemia and certain vitamin and/or immune deficiencies.
If left untreated, chapped lips can grow quite severe and lead to inflammation, bleeding, scarring and even infection. Licking the lips, which is often a natural response to dryness, can lead to further chapping and is common in children and the elderly. If left untreated, the area affected can spread as far as the chin and cheeks.
If your chapped lips become inflamed and painful, or seem to occur on a regular basis or persist for more than a few days or weeks, you may need to schedule a visit with your doctor to not only prevent further chapping, but to avoid putting yourself at risk for developing an infection. Your doctor will do a visual and physical exam of the affected area to check for causes and potential problems, and may request your medical history to rule out any underlying health issues. Your doctor will also look for sores that may occur as a result of severely chapped lips, or to rule out a virus known as cold sores as a potential cause.
Because certain issues related to a dry mouth and chapped or cracked lips can be indicative of a dental problem, you may need to schedule an appointment with your dentist to rule out disease or alignment issues that may be contributing to your condition. Your dentist will perform a general examination to check not only your overall dental health, but to look for any possible causes that may be contributing to chapped lips. People with braces often experience irritation around the mouth and lips that can lead to chapping. Your dentist may provide wax that should be applied to any edges on the braces that are causing pain and leading to excessing licking.
Your doctor may prescribe a medicated balm or salve to not only help heal your dry lips, but to also shield them from environmental contaminates that may lead to infection. If an infection is present, he may also prescribe an antibiotic.
Some natural remedies you can try to help alleviate chapped lips include:
- Regular exfoliation to remove dead and flaking skin cells. A mixture of honey and sugar, or olive oil and sugar provide natural moisture and exfoliation. Regular exfoliation also promotes healing. Many lip balms include honey as one of the main ingredients due to its anti-fungal and healing properties.
- Aloe Vera is a plant that contains vitamins, amino acids and can not only be used to treat chapped lips, but burns and rashes as well. It also provides a decent level of moisturization.
- Zinc Oxide, which is often used on the nose as an extra measure to protect against sunburn, can also provide protection for chapped lips.
Be sure to read the labels on any products you apply to your lips to avoid ingesting any potentially toxic substances.
Side effects for antibiotics can include allergic reactions, diarrhea, headache and in women, yeast infection. If you experience any adverse side effects, contact your doctor to talk about trying a different antibiotic. Women who experience yeast infections may request an additional medication to take care of the problem, or may ask their doctor for a new prescription that shows a low risk for yeast infections.
If the affected area has become inflamed and painful, application of any topical treatment may result in an initial burning sensation, but should subside once healing begins.
Effectiveness and Cost
Balms or salves are generally effective and low cost and are most likely covered by insurance. Antibiotics, which are very effective in treating infections, can be a little more expensive, but should also be covered under most insurance plans. Contact your insurance provider to establish what treatments are covered.
Home remedies are surprisingly effective and can cost as little as a few dollars.
Prevention is really the key when it comes to combating dry, chapped lips. There are a few steps that you can take to reduce your risk of developing this often painful condition.
During the cold winter months, use a humidifier to keep the air in your home moist. This can not only prevent chapped lips but can even improve the overall health of your skin. Smoking, which can cause the evaporation of the natural oils in your lips, is a common contributor to chapped lips. Quit smoking to not only keep your lips soft and moist, but to improve your general health as well.
Use sunscreen regularly, even during the winter to avoid sunburn. Use a beeswax based lip balm, or petroleum jelly to shield the lips from both windburn and sunburn, as well as to lock moisture in. Avoid using products that may irritate your skin such as harsh cleansers or skin care products that you may cause an allergic reaction. Choose hypo-allergenic products instead.
Stay hydrated. Drink at least six to eight glasses of water each day. If you plan on being outside a lot during the warm summer months, be sure to drink enough water to avoid not only dehydration, but heat stroke as well.
Cracked Lips Overview
Cracked lips are often a separate issue from chapped lips and have different causes and treatment options.
Alternative names include perleche, angular stomatitis, angular cheilitis.
- Cracking that typically occurs at the corners of the mouth.
- Can become painful when opening the mouth.
- The corners of the mouth may become inflamed.
- Excess moisture at the corners of the mouth.
- Frequent licking of the lips.
- Dentures that do not fit properly.
- Dental issues such as alignment problems, dry mouth or dental disease.
- Cracking at the corners of the mouth may also be in indicator of an underlying health issue like diabetes, anemia and immune or vitamin deficiencies.
People with cracked lips often lick the affected area to temporary provide moisture and alleviate pain. However, licking leads to further cracking and will aggravate the problem.
The risk of leaving a condition like cracking untreated are the growth of bacteria and fungus that can result in infection. Severe cracks can also lead to scarring.
Your doctor will want to check for the presence of bacteria or fungus as well as infection. Because cracking can be indicative of an underlying health condition such as diabetes, your doctor may request a blood analysis. He will also ask questions relating to your medical history that may include dental or skin issues.
When bacteria or fungus are present, your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid or antifungal medication, or oral medication to kill the infection.
If your condition is due to dental issues such as disease, ill fitting dentures, alignment issues or dry mouth, your dentist may take appropriate action, such as re-fitting your dentures, or she may fit you for a retainer to help with the any alignment issues.
Because cracked lips are often a sign of a more serious condition or an infection, at-home treatment can only provide a level of comfort and perhaps prevention. Keeping the corners of your mouth as dry as possible to avoid the build-up of bacteria and fungus is the best way to keep infection risk low.
Side effects for topical and oral medications can include allergic reaction, diarrhea and headache.
As with chapped lips, any topical treatments may produce a burning sensation once applied, but should improve as the medicine takes effect.
Topical steriods, antifungal medications and oral antibiotics are often very effective in treating infection. However, some bacteria and fungi can be resistant and may require a longer period of treatment until the affected area is cleared up.
Antifungal medications, steroid treatments or oral medications are often more expensive, but are also typically covered under most insurance plans. Check with you provider to determine coverage for any treatment your doctor suggests.
The best way to prevent the occurrence of cracking is to keep the corners of the mouth dry, but the lips from chapping. Applying a balm or salve can protect the corners of your mouth from bacteria and will also shield against excess moisture from your mouth that will only aggravate the condition.
Because dry air can contribute to the problem, using a humidifyer in the winter, as well as sunblock during the summer, can help prevent the dry lips that can lead to excess licking.
If you have a health concern that may lead to dry mouth, dental issues or any other condition that could potentially contribute to cracking of the lips, talk to your health care provider before the issues lead to complications. If you are currently taking a medication that is causing other side effects, be sure to mention your dry, cracked or chapped lips as this may be a side effect as well.