Symptoms of Lip Cancer

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

Lip cancer is a type of oral (mouth) cancer that occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells develop in the lips. Symptoms are similar to less serious conditions such as cold sores or chapped lips so they are often overlooked. Sun exposure and tobacco use are two of the most common risk factors for lip cancer.

Because symptoms of lip cancer are in a visible area, they are usually caught early. Dentists and dental hygienists are frequently the first to catch signs of this disease. 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 93 percent.

This article reviews common lip cancer symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis, and when to see a healthcare provider.

woman looking at sore on bottom lip
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Common Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of lip cancer can be quite obvious. However, they can easily be mistaken for another concern, such as a cold sore or chapped lips. The most common symptoms include:

  • An open sore, lesion, or ulcer on the lip that will not heal
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the lip area
  • A lump, wart-like growth, or thickened area on the lips
  • White or red patches on the lips
  • Pale area of the lip that looks like a scar
  • Crusty or itchy patch on the lip

During the initial stages of lip cancer, symptoms may be minor and include a slightly raised or discolored area. As lip cancer progresses, sores develop and become more persistent, bigger, and more painful. A lump in the neck or swollen lymph nodes is seen in up to 15% of later stages of lip cancer.

The Importance of Dental Exams

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

Risk Factors

Knowing common risk factors can help you be on the lookout for any suspicious findings on your lips. Risk factors of lip cancer include:

  • Sun exposure: Over 90% of lip cancers are on the lower lip. This is most likely due to a higher level of sun exposure. It's also interesting to note that 30% of patients with lip cancer have outdoor occupations.
  • Alcohol and tobacco use: Using both alcohol and tobacco (cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, pipes) will dramatically increase your risk of lip cancer. You can decrease your risk by kicking your tobacco habit and reducing alcohol intake if excessive.
  • Age and gender: Lip cancer is most common in men who are over 45 years old and smoke. However, there has been an increase in female cases over the last several years.
  • Medical history: Those with a history of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and human papilloma virus (HPV) (especially HPV type 16 and 18) are at increased risk for lip cancer.
  • Trauma to lips: Repeated injury to the lip with a toothpick, pen, or from chewing can act as a trigger for lip cancer.

Lip Balm With Sunscreen

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


If you have a visible sore or lesion, your healthcare provider will visually examine it. They will ask you questions about how long you have had it, if it has worsened, and if you suspect anything has caused it.

Ultimately, only a biopsy can rule out lip cancer. You may receive a referral to an ear-nose-throat practitioner for this procedure. Under local anesthesia, the medical professional 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 need biopsies may also be given general anesthesia for their safety during the procedure.

Differential Diagnoses

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 five, though it can affect older individuals.

When examining you, your healthcare provider will work to rule out these concerns before diagnosing lip cancer.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

If you have a sore, lump, crusting, thickening, discoloration, or any other suspicious findings on your lip that don't go away after a couple of weeks, it's best to see a healthcare provider. If you have one of the known risk factors, be extra vigilant about seeing a healthcare provider if symptoms arise.

It's also important to keep up with your dental exams and cleaning. Your dental team can help monitor for signs and symptoms and good oral hygiene reduces the risk of lip cancer.


Lip cancer is highly treatable when caught early. Knowing risk factors and symptoms can help you know when to see a healthcare provider.

Common symptoms of lip cancer include sores, lumps, bleeding, discretion, crusty patches, and more. The most common risk factors are sun exposure and tobacco use.

Lip cancer symptoms are often overlooked because they mimic less serious conditions. If you have symptoms that don't resolve within a couple of weeks, especially if you have known risk factors, see a healthcare or dental provider as soon as possible.

A Word From Verywell

As with any condition, early detection is key. It is important to see your healthcare provider if you notice anything out of the ordinary. Treatment for lip cancer is similar to other oral cancer types.

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 practitioner can tell you that.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can be mistaken for lip cancer?

    Cold sores, dry or peeling lips, injury, and chapped lips can be mistaken for lip cancer. It’s important to note that sores from lip cancer do not go away after a couple of weeks.

  • What does early lip cancer look like?

    During the initial stages of lip cancer, symptoms may be minor and include a slightly raised or discolored area. As lip cancer progresses, symptoms include:

    • Sores
    • Lumps
    • Discoloration
    • Bleeding
    • Numbness
    • Crusty patches
    • Itching
    • A pale area that looks like a scar

    A lump in the neck or swollen lymph nodes may occur in the later stages of lip cancer.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. Survival rate for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.

  2. Lowe A. Spotting the signs and symptoms of lip cancer in patients. BDJ Team. 2021;8(10): 28–31. doi: 10.1038/s41407-021-0778-6

  3. Biasoli E, Valente V, Mantovan B, et al. Lip cancer: A clinicopathological study and treatment options. Jour of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. 2016;74(7): 1360-1367. doi: 10.1016/j.joms.2016.01.041

  4. Mannelli C. Tissue vs liquid biopsies for cancer detection: Ethical issues. J Bioeth Inq. 2019;16(4):551-557. doi: 10.1007/s11673-019-09944-y

Additional Reading

By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed