Actinic cheilitis is a precancerous condition caused by long-term sun exposure. It leads to rough, scaly, discolored patches on your lips. It’s more common in men, people with fair skin, those who work outside and populations in places where the sun is stronger. Accurate diagnosis and treatment are important to prevent cancer.
Actinic cheilitis is a precancerous condition that can create rough, scaly, discolored patches on your lips. Prolonged sun exposure causes it, and usually affects your lower lip.
It’s also called:
Cheilitis means “inflamed lips.” Actinic cheilitis is a form of actinic keratosis, which are precancerous macules or papules that may occur anywhere on the body. Being precancerous, actinic keratosis can eventually turn into squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), a type of skin cancer.
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Anyone can develop actinic cheilitis, but it’s more common in:
Genetic damage to skin cells by ultraviolet light (UV) rays causes actinic cheilitis. Your lips are more vulnerable to the sun’s rays than other areas of skin. The skin on your lips is thinner and contains less pigment to protect cells from the sun’s damaging rays.
Repeated, long-term exposure of your lips to solar ultraviolet radiation causes actinic cheilitis.
With actinic cheilitis, your skin on one or both lips may look or feel:
Also, the vermilion border (the reddish-colored line that separates the lips from other skin) may blur. Women sometimes describe difficulty applying lipstick because the lip line is less defined.
Actinic cheilitis is usually painless, but you might experience:
If you have symptoms of actinic cheilitis, talk to your healthcare provider. They’ll examine you to determine whether you have:
Your healthcare provider may diagnose actinic cheilitis based on:
Actinic cheilitis can turn into cancer, so you should talk to your healthcare provider about treatment options. They’ll recommend strategies depending on how severe the condition is and your overall health.
The goal of treatment is to reduce the risk that the condition will turn into SCC. Treatment options may include:
The best way to prevent actinic cheilitis and SCC is to protect your lips from the sun’s harmful rays year-round:
People with actinic cheilitis should have routine checkups to detect any changes that could be early warning signs of cancer. Most healthcare providers recommend yearly skin checks by a dermatologist (skin doctor) for such individuals.
In addition, smokers should quit smoking. Ask your healthcare provider for help with quitting.
You can improve the outlook for actinic cheilitis by protecting your lips from the sun.
Continued sun exposure will increase the risk of SCC, which can be life-threatening. Actinic cheilitis progresses to SCC in 6% to 10% of cases. And SCC that starts on your lips is more likely to spread to other areas of your body than SCC that starts elsewhere on your skin.
If you’ve been diagnosed with and treated for actinic cheilitis, you should have routine checkups every six months to a year.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Chronic sun exposure causes actinic cheilitis, a precancerous condition on your lips. The rough, scaly patches usually develop on your lower lip. If you have any changes on your skin or lips, talk to your healthcare provider. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis and take steps to prevent the condition from progressing to skin cancer.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/13/2022.
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