What Causes Swollen Lips?

5 Common Causes of Lip Swelling

Swollen upper lip
Swollen upper lip. susandaniels/Getty Images

Several conditions can cause swollen lips. While some of these conditions can be serious or even life-threatening, others may resolve on their own. You should see your doctor any time that the swelling cannot be explained, does not improve after a few days, is accompanied by difficulty breathing or if you suspect any of the life-threatening conditions covered below.

Angioedema

Angioedema is caused by an allergic reaction to something you've eaten, an insect bite, pollen allergies or a medication you've taken.

Angioedema can cause a life-threatening swelling of the lips, face, and tongue which usually occurs rapidly. It can also sometimes be accompanied by redness or bumps (hives). Due to the swelling, you may have difficulty talking. Angioedema can also cause swelling of the airway and difficulty breathing which is why this condition is life threatening. You can tell that someone is in a life-threatening situation if they have:

  • difficulty breathing
  • voice becomes hoarse or they are unable talk
  • begin to wheeze or cough
  • lips or face become bluish in color

If you suspect that you or someone is experiencing this you should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Angioedema can be treated with steroids such as epinephrine. If you have had this type of reaction, you should carry epinephrine (Epi-Pen) with you in case of an emergency.

Injuries

Trauma to the face or lips, for example burning your lips on hot food or being hit in the mouth, can cause swelling.

In minor cases, the swelling can usually be controlled using a cold pack and will resolve in a few days. If you have a severe injury, for example, one that is causing you a lot of pain, bleeds excessively, is accompanied by other worrisome symptoms, or if you cannot control swelling, you should see a doctor.

When seeking medical care, the sooner the better. If there is too much swelling present, risk of infection is high, or the injury occurred more than 24 hours earlier, your physician will likely not be able to do sutures. In this case, your physician will clean your wound and schedule a repair in a couple of days. 

Chapped or Sunburned Lips

Very chapped lips may become swollen. This is generally caused by licking your lips too much, being outside in windy, sunny or arid weather, or just living in a dry climate. To prevent this from occurring, you can try any or all of the following:

  • using a lip balm that contains petroleum jelly or beeswax
  • lip products with sunscreen
  • wearing hats
  • not to licking your lips
  • not picking at any dry flaky skin.

Infections

Some infections may cause lip swelling including those caused by fungal infections, viruses or bacteria. Sometimes chapped, cracked lips allow germs to infect this area. This can cause redness, soreness, and some swelling. In the case of an infection, treatment will depend on the germ causing it and should be managed by your physician.

Mucoceles

A mucocele usually appears more like a bump on the lip rather than generalized swelling but they can vary in appearance. Mucoceles are cysts that occur from biting the lip or trauma to the lip that results in damage to a salivary gland. Fluid then backs up or pools under the skin in that area and forms a bump. Mucoceles are not considered a serious health problem but some may be bothersome and they may have to be surgically removed or lanced and drained.

Other less common causes of swollen lips include:

  • Melkersson-Rosenthal syndrome
  • cheilitis granulomatosa
  • Crohn's disease

Sources:

Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. A persistently swollen lip. Accessed: June 26, 2013 from http://www.ccjm.org/content/76/1/12.full

Hollander, J.E. & Weinberger Conlon, L.N. (2015). Assessment and Management of lip lacerations. Accessed: January 17, 2016 from http://www.uptodate.com (Subscription Required)

Medscape. Mucocele and Ranula. Accessed: June 27, 2013 from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1076717-overview

Mowad, C. (2015). Chelitis. Accessed: January 17, 2016 from http://www.uptodate.com (Subscription Required)

NHS Choices. Sore or Dry Lips. Accessed: June 27, 2013

University of Maryland Medical Center. Angioedema. Accessed: June 27, 2013 from http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/condition/angioedema

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