Swollen lips occur when a person’s lips are inflamed or full of fluid, and can range from slightly uncomfortable to downright painful. Lip swelling can come from a variety of causes, from external factors like injury, irritation to allergies, infection, and rarely, underlying conditions that may require medical treatment.
Sometimes, swollen lips can come on suddenly after exposure to an irritant or allergen. Other times, your lip swelling may progress more slowly, or come and go over time. Along the same lines, you may experience a swollen lip on one side or swelling around your entire mouth.
There isn’t just one cause of swollen lips, so there’s no one “swollen lips cure” or timeframe for how quickly the swelling will go away. For example, if you have chapped lips, your lip swelling may go away when you apply chapstick. But if your swollen lips stem from an allergy, the swelling may last until an antihistamine medication kicks in.
While most cases of swollen lips aren’t serious, if you’re experiencing prolonged swollen lips, it’s important to seek medical care. Your doctor can not only help you determine the cause of your swollen lips, but also the best course of action for treating them.
Symptoms That Occur With Swollen Lips
Lip swelling, sometimes called lip edema, occurs when one or both lips are enlarged due to either inflammation or fluid buildup in the lip tissue. Sometimes, swollen lips occur with other symptoms that can signal an underlying cause or condition. Common symptoms that may accompany swollen lips include:
- Redness on or around the lips
- Lip pain
- Chapped or cracked lips
- Changes in lip color
- Fever and chills
- Itchy or watery eyes
- Runny nose or congestion
- Skin sores
- Pus-filled bumps
How swollen lips manifest, and how long they last, depends on what’s causing them. Sometimes, swollen lips come on quickly and go away with time or treatment. Other times, swollen lips develop slowly over the course of time, which may be a sign of inflammation or infection.
Common Causes of Swollen Lips
Swollen lips can stem from a number of causes, all of which have their own symptoms and treatment methods. The primary causes of swollen lips include infection, allergies, and injury.
Swollen lips due to infection
Sometimes, swollen lips can occur due to a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection in the body, such as:
- Cheilitis: An infection, that is often caused by fungus, which causes inflammation around the mouth and often begins in the corners of a person’s lips.
- Cellulitis: A bacterial skin infection that may manifest around a person’s mouth if that area of skin is infected.
- Herpes simplex: A contagious viral infection that often results in cold sores around the mouth.
Sometimes, infections―especially more severe ones—present with other symptoms, including redness around the affected area, or mild, flu-like symptoms such as a low-grade fever, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes.
Swollen lips due to allergies
Swollen lips can occur when a person has an allergic reaction, which happens when the immune system reacts abnormally to a foreign substance. Possible allergic reactions, which can range from mild to severe, include:
- Food allergies, most commonly to nuts, eggs, milk, and fish or shellfish
- High fever or an allergic response to an animal, dust, or pollen in the air
- Insect bite allergy, such as from a bee sting
- Drug allergies, most commonly to penicillin
One particular—and potentially life-threatening—type of allergic reaction which can cause swollen lips is a reaction to a class of high blood pressure medications called ace inhibitors. Sometimes this type of reaction will cause swelling only on one side of the lip and the swelling can be dramatic and worsen quickly. If the tongue becomes swollen as well, the airway can become occluded, so if you take this type of medication and develop lip swelling, you should immediately seek medical attention.
Another severe reaction, known as anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock, may occur in some people with allergies. Usually, anaphylaxis happens a few minutes or a few hours after an encounter with an allergen and can become life-threatening. Symptoms to look out for include:
- Trouble breathing
- Tightening airways
- Swollen tongue or throat
- Low blood pressure
- Weak and fast pulse
- Abdominal pain
- A feeling of impending doom
Swollen lips due to irritation
Trauma or irritation to the mouth area can also prompt the lips to swell. Common external triggers include:
- Laceration (a cut) on the lip
- Burns, including sunburn
- Surgery on the lip or mouth
- Hot or spicy food
- Dental appliances, like braces
- Contact with an irritant, like a soap, detergent, or skin cream
- Cosmetic surgery, like lip fillers
- Dry weather or dehydration, which can cause lips to chap and potentially swell
- A swollen pimple on lip or mouth skin
If you have a swollen lip on one side, it’s more likely your swelling is from injury to that side of your lip than a systemic issue, like allergies.
Other causes of swollen lips
Some people may also experience swollen lips due to:
- A reaction to a blood transfusion
- Fluid retention, which may occur during pregnancy
- Hereditary angioedema, a genetic disorder that causes swelling that may be triggered by stress
- Lip cancer, a type of skin cancer
- Heart, kidney, or liver failure
- Pre-eclampsia, a condition during pregnancy that includes swelling and high blood pressure
- Hypothyroidism, which may also present with a puffy face or enlarged tongue
- Vitamin B2 deficiency
Diagnosing Lip Swelling
The swollen appearance of your lips may be enough for your doctor to diagnose you with lip swelling; however, your provider will likely want to get to the bottom of what’s causing your lips to swell.
If you’re experiencing swollen lips, it’s important to see your health care provider or chat with a K doctor, who can help you get to the bottom of why your lips are swelling and determine how to get rid of a swollen lip.
Your practitioner will likely conduct a physical exam and ask you a series of questions, including:
- When your lip swelling started
- If your lip swelling comes and goes
- If you ate or came into contact with anything new or unusual, such as a food or an insect
- Whether you have other symptoms, and what they are
If you’re still not sure what’s triggering your swollen lips, your doctor may recommend you keep an allergy journal to help narrow down the cause. He or she may also recommend skin-prick allergy testing to figure out what you’re allergic to so you can avoid triggers.
Treatment for Swollen Lips
While lip swelling can be uncomfortable and frustrating, there are a number of treatments available for infections, allergies, and other causes of swollen lips. Figuring out what’s causing your swollen lips is an essential step for determining the most effective way to treat them.
Treatment for infections
How your doctor treats your infection depends on the type of infection you have. While bacterial infections respond to oral or topical antibiotics, viral and fungal infections do not, although herpes simplex infections can be treated with antiviral medications. Your provider will work with you to decide on the treatment most appropriate for your specific infection.
Treatment for allergies
If your doctor determines your swollen lips are due to environmental allergies, he or she may recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription antihistamine medication, such as:
- Loratadine (Claritin)
- Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- Fexofenadine (Allegra)
In more severe cases of environmental allergies, a doctor might suggest allergy shots, a form of long-term treatment that works by decreasing sensitivity to allergens.
For food allergies, avoiding the foods you’re allergic to is the only way to prevent a reaction. Your doctor may recommend an epinephrine prescription (EpiPen) if you have a severe allergy.
Treatment for injuries
Most forms of irritation and trauma can’t be prevented. If you’re experiencing swollen lips due to an external factor (but not allergies), talk to your doctor about how to minimize pain or swelling. He or she may recommend:
- Ice or heat to reduce swelling and inflammation
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
Treatment for other causes of swollen lips
If your doctor identifies another cause of swollen lips, he or she will work with you to find the best course of action. Your treatment may be focused on managing symptoms with anti-inflammatory medications (like NSAIDs or corticosteroids) or treating the underlying condition.
Risk Factors and Complications
Anyone with allergies, known or unknown, is at a higher risk for developing swollen lips. Other risk factors for swollen lips include:
- Exposure to environmental irritants, like sun or spicy food
- High-impact sports that could cause blunt force to the lip
- Mouth surgery
- Dental or orthodontic work
- Cosmetic surgery
It’s important to seek treatment for swollen lips to avoid any potential complications. While rare, possible complications that may accompany swollen lips include:
- Spread of an infection
- Difficulty breathing or cardiac arrest due to anaphylactic shock
- Lip or skin deformities
When to See a Doctor
If swollen lips are causing you discomfort or interfering with your life, contact your health care provider or a K doctor, who can help you identify the underlying cause and the most appropriate course of treatment.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, which may indicate a serious condition like an anaphylactic reaction, call 911:
- Throat tightening
- A swollen tongue
- Other swelling
- Hives or rash
- Itching in the mouth or throat
- Breathing problems such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, wheezing, or choking
- Severe distress or a feeling of impending doom
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