Dry, cracked lips that won't heal can be bothersome, uncomfortable and unsightly. This symptom is most often caused by environmental factors (like the climate) or dehydration, but less commonly, chronic chapped lips are related to medication side effects, allergies or medical conditions.
In general, this symptom goes away when the cause is removed, so by understanding the triggers, you can better prepare yourself to combat this problem and keep your lips smooth and healthy.
Exposure to sun, wind or dry air can zap moisture from the thin, sensitive skin covering the lips, leading to dryness. With repeated exposure, these environmental factors can lead to chronic dry lips.
Fortunately, this problem can be reversed by protecting and moisturizing the lips. Cover the mouth with a face mask or scarf to prevent dryness and wear a lip balm that contains petroleum jelly or mineral oil to shield your lips from the elements, trap moisture and prevent cracked lips from getting infected. You can also improve lip hydration by using a humidifier to counter dry, indoor air.
When the body loses more water than it takes in, dehydration can occur. When the lips lose moisture, the skin covering them can become tight and split, and symptoms including dry, chapped lips can set in. With ongoing dehydration, chronic chapped lips can become an issue.
In addition to decreased fluid intake, there are other situations and conditions that lead to fluid loss, including vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating or exposure to hot temperatures. Mouth breathing, certain medications and some health conditions can also lead to dry mouth or generalized dehydration.
The good news is that when your fluid intake is increased or the underlying cause of the dehydration is addressed, your chapped lips should go away, too.
Chronic or severely chapped lips can also be related to contact dermatitis, which is an allergy or sensitivity to substances that come in contact with your lips. Certain chemicals in toothpaste, lotions, lipstick or other cosmetics could trigger allergic reactions that can lead to symptoms including mild to severe chapped lips.
Also, if you're allergic to certain foods, jewelry, nickel or latex, contact with the lips can trigger dry, sore or chapped lips. Even if you don't have allergies, irritating substances such as citrus fruit, certain soaps or cosmetics, or excessive lip licking can also lead to — or worsen — chapped lips.
Usually, when the cause is removed, the chapped lips will resolve with the help of a lip balm, which soothes dry, chapped lips and facilitates healing.
Cheilitis is a term used for chronic inflammation of the lips caused by infection, irritation, or underlying disease. In addition to chronic chapped lips, a person suffering from cheilitis often has lip swelling, redness, pain, cracks, crusts and scale.
While chapped lips from dehydration or environmental causes, such as dry air — referred to as cheilitis simplex — fall in this category, the severe or chronic forms of cheilitis tend to warrant medical attention. There are a few other main types and causes of cheilitis:
- Angular cheilitis, a common form which affects the corners of the mouth, can be caused by poorly fitting dentures, yeast infections or nutrient deficiencies.
- Actinic cheilitis, which predominantly affects the lower lip, is caused by chronic sun damage and is a precancerous condition that requires ongoing monitoring.
- Infectious cheilitis can be caused by bacteria, parasites and fungus.
- Traumatic cheilitis can be triggered by ongoing assault to the lips from lip licking or lip biting.
Other causes of cheilitis include persistent damage from contact dermatitis, medications or other health conditions that inflammation to the lips. Treatment is focused on removing or treating the underlying cause and protecting the lips.
Read more: 11 Warning Signs Your Skin Is Sending You
Preventing Chronic Dry Lips
Most cases of chapped lips can be corrected with drinking plenty of water, applying lip balm and protecting the lips from irritating substances or harsh environments. Avoid biting, picking or licking your lips, since these practices can make chronic dry lips worse.
Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and take care to keep your lips moist when you're exposed to dry, windy air or if you tend to suffer from dry, chapped lips. Use a lip balm with sunscreen and keep your face and lips away from too much sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat or a face covering.
When to See a Doctor
If your chapped lips are the result of cheilitis, see your doctor — as some forms of this inflammatory condition can predispose your lips to cancer. Also, since some medications and health problems can trigger chapped lips, see your doctor if you have dry, chapped lips that won't heal despite good hydration and use of lip balm, or if you have severely chapped lips that are red, swollen or painful.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD