What Your Lips Can Tell You About Your Health

After being hidden behind masks for the last couple of years, lips are making a comeback. We're plumping them and painting them and caring for them like never before. But did you know that your lips can also tell you a lot about your health? The state of your lips can signify whether you're vitamin deficient or dehydrated, while the color of your lips can indicate a number of different health concerns.

A healthy lip color can vary depending on a number of factors including skin color, ethnicity, and age, but generally, a healthy lip will be somewhere in the reddish pink-to-brown range, according to Abreva. When your lip color changes it could be a sign of potential health issues. "While not every new symptom regarding your lips is necessarily concerning, some serious illnesses present signs through the lips," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Annie Gonzalez, M.D., FAAD, explained to Bustle.

Now that our lips are on full display once again, it's important to keep that pout hydrated and properly moisturized and to recognize when we may be experiencing certain health issues. Your lips are definitely made for talking, and these are just some of the things they're telling you about your health.

What should healthy lips look like?

Lips are as unique as fingerprints, but no matter what size or shape of lips you have, it's important to take proper care of them. Dr. Timothy Chase of SmilesNY told Good Housekeeping that for the most part, healthy lips should be "pink, soft, and smooth." Like the skin on every other part of your body, how you care for your lips is important to maintaining a healthy pucker. Medical News Today notes that the color of your lips doesn't always act as an indicator of good health, but that healthy lips should always be "free from cracks and sores, hydrated and smooth."

If you're hoping to avoid some of the preventable lip issues we outline below, Healthline details some ways you can contribute to healthy lips. The outlet notes that hydration is key. Drinking water is one way to stay hydrated, but you can also add products to your lips like vaseline, coconut oil, and vitamin E to keep them moisturized.

Before you apply that lip balm or lipstick, make sure you know what the ingredients are, as some can be very drying on your lip's delicate skin. Occasionally exfoliating your lips, either with a sugar scrub or even using your toothbrush, followed by a moisturizer, can help rid your lips of dry skin and help keep them healthy.

Swollen lips

If you've noticed your pout is extra pouty but it's been a minute since you've visited the med spa for some plumping, you may be suffering from swollen lips. Swollen lips are often the result of an allergic reaction that could be caused by something you've eaten or it could be an adverse reaction to a new lip product. Swelling of the lips is caused by either inflammation or built-up fluid under the skin.

Allergies can range from mild to serious, so it's important to seek medical attention if you begin to experience symptoms such as trouble breathing, itchy throat, or burning along with swollen lips. What's more, insect bites or stings could cause swelling, in which case an oral antihistamine may help alleviate any discomfort.

If your swollen lips aren't accompanied by any other health symptoms it could be a mild reaction to a new lipstick, lip balm, or even something you've eaten. It's important to monitor your symptoms and take action if you begin to experience more discomfort. Keith Arbeitman, D.D.S., of Arbeitman & Shein Dentistry in Manhattan told Prevention, "If you start looking like a duck, you probably want to go to the emergency room."

Cracked corners

If you've ever struggled with the cracking at the corners of your mouth you know how frustrating and painful it can be. Known by the technical term of angular cheilitis, this can be caused by several reasons including drooling, wearing dentures, or a vitamin deficiency. Diane Madfes, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, explained to Prevention that sometimes those painful cracks could be the result of low iron, zinc, vitamin B3, or vitamin B6. Blood work done by your doctor can quickly point out if you're deficient in these areas and you can modify your diet to add these vitamins naturally. What's more, board-certified dermatologist Amanda Doyle explained to Byrdie how the enzymes in our saliva that collects in the corners of the mouth can also contribute to these painful cracks. "Saliva build-up creates cracks and dryness and also allows for certain types of bacteria and yeast to grow," she noted.

While it can be tempting and often habitual to lick these areas to add moisture, the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology explains that this can exacerbate the issue, including leading to infections. Fungal infections can also cause this chapping, and, in this case, antibiotics or even a topical cream can be prescribed by your doctor to help treat the cracks. If the cracking is caused by ill-fitting dentures or braces, a visit to your dentist may be in order to ensure a proper fit.

Gray or pale lips

Discoloration affecting your lips can have several different causes. If you've noticed that your lips are more pale than usual or are looking a bit gray, this may have to do with decreased blood flow, according to Abreva. Possible causes of this could include health issues like anemia, blood loss, frostbite, shock, fainting, low blood sugar, circulatory issues, certain chronic diseases like cancer and infection, some vitamin deficiencies, and certain medications.

Healthline notes that anemia, a condition where your body doesn't produce enough red blood cells, is often the culprit when it comes to gray or pale lips. This can also be the result of low iron or low levels of vitamin B12, which can be treated by a change to your diet or supplements. However, if your anemia is so serious that your lip color is affected, you should see a doctor who can prescribe the correct course of treatment. According to WebMD, anemia can be caused by a number of different diseases, so if you notice your lips are paling and not improving, you should see a doctor for a proper diagnosis. 

If your lips start turning blue this could be an indicator of a much more serious illness. If your blue lips are accompanied by others symptoms such as dizziness, chest pain or trouble breathing should call 911 immediately.

Cold sores

While painful and frustrating, cold sores are fairly common and thankfully, easily treated. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, and these sores can be triggered by a number of different factors including weather, stress, or illness. While not everyone will have any symptoms of a cold sore, the most common are tingling of the lips, small blisters, itching, and pain near the lips and mouth.

Unfortunately, cold sores are contagious and can be spread through close contact, including kissing or sharing the same glass or utensil and, per the Mayo Clinic, can be transmitted whether you have an open sore or not. If you do develop a cold sore the blister can last up to a week, while the scabs that form can take up to three weeks to heal. Cold sores will typically heal on their own but if you suffer from these frequently, or would simply like to try to expedite healing, your doctor may prescribe you an antiviral pill or cream. You can also try any of the over-the-counter medications sold at your local pharmacy. Not only can this help heal your cold sore but it may also help reduce how often you'll get future outbreaks and how serious they can be.

If your cold sore lasts for longer than 15 days, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests a visit to your doctor or dermatologist for help with treatment.

Rash or inflammation

Just like the rest of your skin, your lips can be affected by contact dermatitis if they've come in contact with an irritant. Basically, what that means is that just as your arms, legs, or torso can be irritated by a new fabric softener, soap, or other product, so can your lips. Abreva notes that irritant dermatitis is the more common type of contact dermatitis, which means something that has come into contact with your lips is causing this adverse reaction.

The reaction is typically a rash or inflammation on the lips as well as other parts of the body. Lip eczema is another form of lip dermatitis that often presents a rash or inflammation as a symptom (via SOG Dermatology). Furthermore, things like stress, changes in hormones, and even your gut health can cause dermatitis on your lips. SOG Dermatology suggests avoiding any triggers that can cause these flare-ups and should they happen, allow your lips to fully heal. Use products without fragrance or other irritating chemicals to try to keep these flare-ups to a minimum, especially if you have sensitive skin.

According to Buoy Health, other causes of a rash on your lips could be "HSV, impetigo (a bacterial infection), or thrush (a yeast infection)." If your rash is persistent and simply won't go away, it's always a good idea to consult your doctor. 

Tenderness or tingling

There are several reasons why your lips could be tingling or tender, with some being more cause for concern than others. Medical News Today writes that the "most common reasons for tingling lips are physical damage to the lips, viruses that affect the skin, and allergic reactions," while also noting that, in rarer instances, this could be a sign of something more serious. Stroke, nerve damage, shingles, lupus, and brain trauma like a concussion can cause tingling lips. This can also be a sign of a panic attack. Panic attacks may also be noticeable through the lips, particularly if you feel a tingling sensation in conjunction with an increased heartbeat, shaking in your arms or legs, or a struggle to breath.

Tenderness in your lips, often accompanied by a darkening around the outline of your lips, can be the result of a severe allergic reaction. If your tingling or tender lips are accompanied by a fever or other concerning symptoms, you shouldn't hesitate to reach out to a medical professional for a proper diagnosis.

Lip twitching

Your lip twitching uncontrollably isn't just annoying; it could also be a sign of a mild or severe medical issue. According to Healthline, in the same way you may feel the effects of too much caffeine or a lack of potassium on other parts of your body, these can also affect your lips and cause unwanted twitching. Certain over-the-counter medications can also cause twitching. Fortunately, the solution to these causes is pretty straightforward. You can cut back on caffeine, eat potassium-rich foods or add in a supplement to your diet, and ask your doctor to change your medication to see if that helps with your twitching.

Other causes of lip twitching can be more serious, including Bell's Palsy, issues related to excessive drug and alcohol use, and Parkinson's disease, to name a few. If cutting down on the coffee or changing medications doesn't alleviate your lip twitching, or you're worried there is a more serious cause that should be investigated, you should contact your doctor for more extensive testing.

Bleeding or lip pain

Bleeding or lip pain is sometimes associated with lip cancer. Lip cancer is a form of oral cancer, and as Healthline notes, it's more often than not diagnosed by your dentist during a routine exam. In addition to bleeding or pain in the lips, other symptoms of lip cancer include sores or blisters that don't heal, a red or white patch on the lip, and swelling of the jaw. Fortunately, lip cancer is highly treatable with early detection. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research states that heavy tobacco and alcohol use can lead to a greater risk of oral cancers, as can spending excessive time in the sun.

Bleeding or sore lips don't necessarily mean cancer, but instead can be the result of some of the other issues we mentioned above. Many people don't realize that you can sunburn your lips without using proper sunscreen, or if you're exposed to the elements for any length of time. Wearing a hat and using a lip balm with SPF can help protect your lips from the sun and wind, which can sometimes cause bleeding and lip pain.  

If you notice that your lip bleeding hasn't stopped or the pain subsided after treatment you should raise the issues with your doctor. "I would recommend seeing a dermatologist if you notice a change in the lip that persists over four weeks," board-certified dermatologist Dr. Susan Massick told Bustle.

Redness and scaling

If you've ever had to deal with eczema on any part of your body, you know how itchy and sore the affected area can be. Many people don't realize that you can also suffer from eczema on your lips. This can cause painful blisters and itchy rashes as well as dry or flaky lips, splitting, and scaling, according to Healthline. These symptoms can affect your lips or the skin around your mouth, especially at the creases.

Lip eczema is typically caused by either a reaction to something, an allergy, or simply a history of eczema. It's not contagious and very treatable, although it can cause some discomfort and irritation. Keeping your lips moist with the use of lip balms or Vaseline — preferably unscented to avoid any further irritation — can help alleviate any symptoms. Your doctor can also prescribe you a medicated cream if your regular solutions don't give you any relief. Your diet and stress levels can also trigger eczema flare-ups so changing up your diet and working on stress reduction can also make a difference in your skin.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, lip eczema is chronic and can be present long-term, so getting it diagnosed by a medical professional can help ensure you're treating it properly and help you avoid future flare-ups.

Chapped and dry lips

Dehydration, vitamin deficiencies, and allergies can cause dry, chapped lips. Did you know that these are the real reason your lips are always chapped? If your lips always seem chapped and dry no matter how much lip balm, lip gloss, and lip creams you use, you may find yourself wondering if there's an underlying cause behind the pesky problem.

Chapped and dry lips are common because, as the Cleveland Clinic notes, the skin on your lips is thinner than anywhere else on your body, and it doesn't contain any oil glands. Anything from dehydration, allergens, exposure to the elements, vitamin deficiencies, and certain medical conditions can cause chapped lips. Chapped and dry lips aren't simply annoying but they can also be painful. If you suffer from a severe case, certain foods and products can sting when they make contact with your lips.

If you're suffering from chapped lips, you can use a non-irritating lip balm (or other lip product), drink plenty of water, apply sunscreen to your lips before heading outdoors, and refrain from licking or biting your lips to help alleviate the chapping. What's more, Dr. Susan Massick, a board-certified dermatologist, explained to Bustle that "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. She added that "in fact, saliva does not moisten the lips — it actually makes them more dry." Using a humidifier at home is also helpful to add some much-needed moisture to the air.