Tips for keeping your lips happy and healthy

Winter is when lips become chapped; a few ways to keep them happy and smiling

By Dr. Stephanie McGann, DMD FAGD, Columnist, The Times

UTStephCollogoYes, your lips do matter and in the bitter cold of January appropriate lip care is always a concern.   In dentistry we sometimes say that the lips are just the picture frame around a beautiful smile.  Our lips are really so much more. Without healthy lips we would find ourselves unable to eat, speak, sing, kiss, suck or smile.

The most common lip ailment is simple chapping.  The classic chapped lips are caused by external factors drying out the tissue.   Cold dry windy weather is often to blame for a classic case of winter chapped lips. The best way to combat this is to protect your lips with a hydrating protective balm before you go outside. Never lick your lips – this only accelerates the drying.  Use a lip balm with a sunscreen to help prevent weather chapped lips. 

Many lip irritations are not caused by winter weather.  Chronic chapping may be more of an allergic reaction to ingredients in common lip remedies. If your lip balm of choice isn’t helping, try something else.  The fancier the products get the more ingredients they have.   Stay hydrated, lips lose moisture quickly; drink plenty of water even in the winter.

Trauma to the lip region is also quite common.   Any injury to that region may cause the teeth to cut into the lip or inside of the mouth causing pain, swelling and bleeding.   Lip injuries often bleed profusely because of the abundance of blood vessels in the region.  If you are dealing with an injured lip at home, be sure to clean off the area by rinsing it gently; wipe it off with a clean soft cloth.  If the injury is inside of the mouth rinse gently with plain water or mild salt water solution.

Cold compresses or ice packs can help swollen or bruised lips. Do not place ice directly on the injury. If the bleeding persists compress the area for at least 5 minutes.  If the bleeding is significant seek medical treatment.

Some lip injuires will require stitches. It is important to have a trained professional suture cuts that cross the border between red lip and facial skin (this demarcation between lip and skin is called the vermillion border).  If this area is not sutured precisely an irregularity in the shape of the lip will remain noticeable indefinitely.

Be sure it’s just the lip that was damaged. Many lip injures also involve the teeth. Be sure no teeth were broken or banged and that no part of broken tooth is lodged inside the lip.  If the teeth were injured call your dentist.  If the teeth punctured deep into the tissue an antibiotic may be indicated to prevent infection.

Seek Medical Attention if there is a deep cut or a cut that crosses the vermillion border, this may require stitches. If the lip is punctured, becomes red, has a discharge or remains swollen after an injury an antibiotic may be indicated. A loose or broken tooth may require a visit to your dentist.

Another common lip concern is the cold sore.  The common cold sore is caused by the HSV virus (Herpes) The virus enters the mouth through a tiny crack in the skin or lip.  The virus that causes cold sores can be transmitted from one individual to another by sharing a utensil, touching the fluid from the blister, kissing or other contact.  Some people developing recurring outbreaks from the original viral infection. These recurrent cold sores may be triggered by sunlight, certain foods or other irritation.  Most people carry the herpes virus but not everyone develops cold sores.

The treatment for herpetic lesions involves plenty of fluids, in some cases an antiviral medication may be prescribed by your physician or dentist. New topical remedies may lessen the pain and speed healing of the outbreak.  If your dentist uses a dental laser ask him or her about laser therapy to speed healing.  Nothing will eliminate the viral infection but many treatments when performed at the early stage of cold sore can lessen the size, duration and pain of an outbreak.

Mouth Ulcers, sometimes referred to a canker sores, are a common and very painful condition that occurs in about 20% if the population. Recurrent mouth ulcers are not contagious and their exact cause is unknown.  People who are susceptible to oral ulcerations may develop recurrent ulcerations as a result of sensitivity to certain foods. Some mouth ulcers can be traced to nutritional deficiencies or problems with the immune system. Children are often seen with oral ulcerations.  While the exact cause of the ulcerations is unclear, treatment is relatively simple.  These ulcerations will heal on their own however certain recommendations will speed the healing and reduce the pain involved.

• Avoid foods that are hard and irritating such as potato chips or popcorn
• Rinse with warm salt water
• A topical barrier medication may help
• Pay attention to good nutrition and adequate hydration
• Stay away from spicy or acidic foods like grapefruit or hot sauce

If the ulcers do not heal quickly and there is fever, tenderness in the neck region, inability to eat or hydrate, see your physician or dentist immediately.

Any growth, swelling, lump or irritation on the lip or mouth area that does not heal in a few weeks should be brought to your dentist or physicians.  The risk factors for oral cancers include history of smoking, regular consumption of alcoholic beverages, chewing tobacco, and anyone who has been exposed to the HPV virus.  If you have an area of concern have it checked out without delay.

To keep your lips looking their best consider regular exfoliation and lip moisture therapy.  The internet is full of options to exfoliate lips, from sugar scrubs, to special gritty creams, baking soda and a trick with a toothbrush and petroleum jelly.  Any method to remove dead skin cells will allow a moisturizing lip treatment to work better.  There is no right or wrong here, see what works for you.  Keep your lips moisturized and protected before you head outside in the bluster of winter.  Use a lip balm with a sunscreen, and for very dry lips avoid products with menthols or camphor.  Flavored lip balm is not ideal for chapped lips as it tends to increase the desire to lick the lips.  Find the moisturizing agent that works best for you.  Personally I like shea or cocoa butter better than parabens or petroleum jelly.

Lips are an important part of our everyday lives, care for them and they will be in shape to help you eat, speak, kiss and whistle your way through the New Year.


Dr. Stephanie McGann, who has more than two decades of dental practice experience, is a resident of the Unionville area and along with her partner, Dr. Marie Scott, operates The Brandywine Smile Center, a family-friendly dental practice in Concordville. Dr. McGann has opened a new practice in Valley Township, Rainbow Valley Dental. She is a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry.

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