Sometimes, you may develop painful cracks in the corners of your mouth. You might find them unsightly, and they may hurt when you talk or eat. It could seem like you just can’t get rid of them.
Norma Cantu, MD, a family medicine practitioner at Banner Health in Torrington, WY, said that these swollen, irritated cracks are often angular cheilitis, also called angular stomatitis. Here’s what to know about this common condition.
What causes angular cheilitis?
These cracks develop when saliva collects in the corners of your mouth, and bacteria can start to grow there. They are more common in older people and babies and young children. A lot of factors can lead to saliva buildup in this area:
- Wearing ill-fitting dentures
- Using pacifiers
- Sucking the thumb
- Wearing face masks
- Wearing braces
- Licking the lips
- Having crooked teeth
- Having sagging skin around your mouth from weight loss or aging
There are medical causes for angular cheilitis as well. It could be caused by:
- Skin allergies
- Down syndrome
- Immune deficiencies such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
- Vitamin B12, iron or protein deficiency
- Cancers, especially of the kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas or blood
What are the symptoms of angular cheilitis?
In the early stages, you might notice irritation, soreness or red swollen patches at the corner of the mouth or lips. As it worsens, angular cheilitis symptoms can include:
- Painful sores
- Dry lips
- A burning sensation
How can you prevent it?
To prevent angular cheilitis, you want to eliminate the underlying cause. So, you may want to stop wearing ill-fitting dentures, using pacifiers or thumb sucking if those are causing the condition. Dental care to replace dentures and correct crooked teeth can help. You can also:
- Moisturize your lips instead of licking them
- Quit smoking
- Control diseases such as diabetes or anemia
- Choose a healthy diet to help prevent any vitamin or mineral deficiencies
How is angular cheilitis diagnosed?
Your doctor or dermatologist can diagnose angular cheilitis by examining the area, asking about your symptoms and reviewing your medical history. If they suspect an infection, they may swab your mouth and send the sample to a lab for testing. If they think an illness or a nutritional deficiency might be the cause, they may also have your blood tested.
How can you treat it?
Start with the prevention steps outlined above. You can also use over-the-counter lip balms and petroleum jelly to moisturize and protect the lips. Talk to your health care provider if you’re not seeing improvement in a few days. Medical treatment options include antifungal medications or antibiotics that you apply to the affected area or take by mouth, as well as steroid creams you can use to relieve swelling and pain. With treatment, most cases clear up in about two weeks.
“You should also seek medical attention if your angular cheilitis is especially painful or starts to spread to the lips,” Dr. Cantu said. “Since this problem can resemble other conditions, you should have it checked if it is not improving.”
It’s crucial to treat angular cheilitis since it can last for years. Untreated, it can cause scarring or discoloration of the skin at the corner of the lips. It can also cause the tissue around the lips to shrink, which can change your appearance.
The bottom line
Painful cracks at the corners of your lips, called angular cheilitis, are common. Eliminating their cause and treating them with medication can usually heal them for good. It’s important to treat them—otherwise, they can last for years and leave your skin with permanent changes.
Need help treating angular cheilitis?
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider.
Schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.