Chapped, or cracked, lips is the term commonly used to describe dry lips. Chapped lips can be caused by several factors, that include:
- excessive licking of the lips
- certain medications
Chapped lips are a common condition that only occurs for most people. But some people may develop a more severe form of chapped lips called cheilitis. Cheilitis can be caused by an infection, characterized by cracked skin at the corners of the lips.
You can usually treat dry lips with simple treatment and preventive measures. If your lips continue to be severely dry and cracked, you should consider make an appointment with a dermatologist.
Symptoms of chapped lips
You may experience any of the following symptoms on or around your lips:
What causes chapped lips?
Lips don’t contain oil glands like other parts of the skin. This means lips are more susceptible to drying out and becoming chapped (cracked). Lack of moisture can make the problem worse, whether it’s weather-induced or related to a lack of self-care. Little humidity in the air during the winter months is known to cause chapped lips. Frequent sun exposure in the summer can also worsen your condition.
Another common cause of chapped lips is habitual licking. Saliva from the tongue can further strip the lips of moisture, causing more dryness.
Risk factors for chapped lips
Everyone can get chapped lips, particularly if they have dry skin.
Taking certain medications can also increase your risk of developing chapped lips. Medications and supplements that can cause chapped lips include:
- vitamin A
- retinoids (Retin-A, Differin)
- lithium (commonly used to treat bipolar disorder)
- chemotherapy drugs
People who are dehydrated or malnourished are also more likely to have chapped lips than other people. Call your doctor if either of these are associated with your chapped lips—dehydration and malnutrition are both serious conditions that require immediate medical attention.
When to seek medical treatment
If the severe dryness and cracking doesn’t improve with self-care, you should see a dermatologist. Cheilitis is often to blame for severely chapped lips. This is a condition marked by cracked skin at the mouth corners and several cracks on your lips.
If you have this condition, your lips may:
- be dark pink or red in colour
- have a lumpy texture
- develop ulcers
- have white plaques on the surface
Cheilitis is often attributed to infections and inflammatory diseases, such as Crohn’s disease. Dental trauma and excessive saliva production may also turn a regular case of chapped lips into cheilitis. Bacteria can enter through the cracks and cause infection. Adults and children who have orthodontic braces, wear dentures, or use pacifiers are all susceptible to developing cheilitis.
A dermatologist can determine whether your dry lips are simply chapped or if you have cheilitis.
Dehydration and malnutrition
Dry lips can also be caused by dehydration or malnutrition. Dehydration causes symptoms including:
- decreased urine production
- dry mouth
In severe cases, a person suffering from dehydration may experience low blood pressure, fever, rapid breathing, or a rapid heartbeat.
Malnutrition is characterized by many of the same symptoms as dehydration. Additional symptoms can include:
- muscle weakness
- decaying teeth
- bloated stomach
- bone fragility
Malnutrition can be caused by vitamin deficiencies, so those on limited diets (for example, vegetarians) need to make sure that they are getting enough of the vitamins they need.
People with alcohol addiction are also more susceptible to malnutrition due to vitamin deficiencies because excessive alcohol use can interfere with the body’s vitamin absorption. Older adults are also at higher risk for malnutrition because decreased appetite is common.
If you suspect you are dehydrated or malnourished, see your doctor right away.
How to treat and prevent chapped lips
Chapped lips can usually be treated at home. The first step is to make sure that your lips have enough moisture. This can be accomplished by:
- applying lip balm throughout the day
- drinking more water
- using a humidifier at home
- avoiding cold weather conditions or wrapping your mouth with a scarf
Sun exposure can also cause chapped lips, especially as you age. Apply a lip balm that contains a minimum SPF 15 before heading outdoors. The balm helps to moisturize the lips and the sunscreen minimizes further drying effects.