Symptoms of Lip Cancer

What to look for, especially if you have certain risk factors

Lip cancer is a type of oral cancer that occurs when malignant cells develop in the lips. Dentists are frequently first to catch the signs of this disease, the symptoms of which can be similar to those of less serious conditions. However, lip cancer may also not have any symptoms at all.

Because they're in a visible area, cancers of the lip are usually caught early. As a result, treatment is often successful. According to the American Cancer Society, when lip cancer is caught before it has spread to other areas of the body (metastasized), the five-year survival rate is 92 percent.

Common Symptoms

As you can see from reviewing this list, the most common signs and symptoms of lip cancer can be quite obvious—but they can also easily be mistaken for another concern, such as a cold sore or dry skin, or even ignored:

  • A lump or thickened area on the lips
  • White or red patches on the lips
  • A sore, lesion, or ulcer (on the outside of the lips or on the inner folds inside the mouth) that does not heal
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the lip area
  • A lump in the neck or swollen lymph nodes

Always be sure to keep up with regular dental cleanings and exams; your dentist will be on the lookout for signs of lip cancer at these visits.

Risk Factors

Given this, it's especially important for those with known risk factors to be extra vigilant about seeing a doctor if symptoms arise.

Lip cancer is more common in older men, those who are fair-skinned, and people who are immunosuppressed.

Cases usually occur on the lower lip, since it receives more sun exposure—the leading cause of lip cancers. In fact, an Australian study found 81 percent of lip cancers reported over 25 years occurred in this area. Those who develop lip cancer as a result of sun exposure are also at higher risk of developing a second form of skin cancer.

Use a lip balm that contains sunscreen, and reapply it frequently—especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors (for example, for work).

Using both alcohol and tobacco (cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, pipes) will dramatically increase your risk of lip cancer as well, so it's important to kick your tobacco habit and reduce your drinking if excessive.

Diagnosis

If you have a visible sore or lesion, your doctor will visually examine it. He or she will want to know how long you have had it, if it has become worse, and if you suspect anything may have caused it.

Ultimately, only a biopsy can rule out lip cancer. You may receive a referral to an ear-nose-throat doctor for this procedure. Under local anesthesia, the doctor can biopsy the area in-office. Pain is minimal and usually subsides in one to two days. 

Advanced or complex cases may require general anesthesia or sedation. Children who require biopsies may also be given general anesthesia for their safety during the procedure.

Differential Diagnoses

It may help to know there are many common causes of lip sores, such as eating new foods, biting your lip, or taking some medications.

In addition, unrelated conditions such as cold sores, canker sores, and herpes may cause lip ulcers and can develop at any time of life.

Hand, foot, and mouth disease can also cause lip sores; it occurs most often in children under the age of 5, though it can affect older individuals.

When examining you, your doctor will work to rule out these concerns before coming to a diagnosis of lip cancer.

A Word From Verywell

As with any condition, early detection is key. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, it is important to see your doctor. Treatment for lip cancer is similar to that for other types of oral cancer. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are the most common treatment options. But remember to take this process one step at a time. While symptoms could mean lip cancer, they very well could be due to something far less concerning. Only a doctor can tell you that.

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