Lip Cancer: Symptoms, Risk Factors, and Treatments

Medically Reviewed By Julie Scott, DNP, ANP-BC, AOCNP

Lip cancer is a type of oral cancer. Common risk factors for lip cancer include tobacco use, sun exposure, and the human papillomavirus (HPV). With early diagnosis, lip cancer can be curable. Lip cancer is rare, affecting only 0.1% of all men and women in their lifetime, according to 2017–2019 data Trusted Source National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program Governmental authority Go to source from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The NCI also reports that lip cancer rates have declined steadily over the past three decades.

This article will provide an overview of lip cancer, including warning signs and symptoms. It will also discuss how doctors diagnose lip cancer, risk factors, and treatment options.

What is lip cancer?

Older man looking thoughtful with hands in front of mouth
diego_cervo/Getty Images

Lip cancer is a type of oral cancer, which is cancer that starts in the mouth. Oral cancer and lip cancer are subtypes of head and neck cancer.

Most often, lip cancer develops in the squamous cells, part of the lining of the lips. It is also possible to have skin cancer on the lips. Melanoma, an aggressive type of skin cancer, can also occur in this area.

Lip cancer can spread to other parts of the mouth and throat as it progresses. Research from 2017 Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source explains that metastatic lip cancer can also reach the lymph nodes in the neck.

Learn more about oral cancer symptoms, causes, and treatments.

What are the symptoms of lip cancer?

Because early detection is key to the successful treatment of lip cancer, it is important to know the warning signs to watch for and bring to your doctor’s attention.

Lip cancer warning signs

According to the NCI, common lip cancer symptoms include the following:

  • a sore on your lip that does not heal
  • red or white spots on your lip that last 2 weeks or more Trusted Source National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research Governmental authority Go to source
  • a lump or area of thickness on your lip
  • bleeding from your lip
  • pain or numbness in your lip
  • a change in color on an area of your lip
  • swelling in your lip or jaw
  • swelling in the lymph nodes around your neck

What does lip cancer look like?

Below are some pictures of lip cancer.

Lip cancer images

Medical image of lip cancer on left lower lip

Lip cancer

Tell your doctor or dentist about sores on your lip that bleed or crust, which may be lip cancer. Coronation Dental Specialty Group/Wikimedia Commons

Medical image of white spots on lower lip indicating lip cancer

Lip cancer

Red or white spots on the lip can indicate lip cancer. Coronation Dental Specialty Group/Wikimedia Commons

Medical image of sore on upper lip that indicates lip cancer

Lip cancer

A sore on your lip that does not heal on its own can be a sign of lip cancer. R Suhonen via Dermnet NZ

Medical image of lip cancer that has spread to skin below lower lip

Lip cancer

Lip cancer can spread to other tissue around the lips. Trøstrup, H., Løvenwald, J. B., & Hesselfeldt, J. (2019). Total lower lip reconstruction by bilateral Fujimori technique-A case report. International journal of surgery case reports, 58, 96–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijscr.2019.04.014

What causes lip cancer?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) Trusted Source American Cancer Society Highly respected international organization Go to source explains that researchers do not know exactly what causes oral cancers, including lip cancer. However, certain factors can increase your risk of developing lip cancer.

What are the risk factors for lip cancer?

Certain risk factors can make you more prone to developing lip cancer. However, it is important to note that not all people with risk factors will develop lip cancer, and not everyone who develops lip cancer has risk factors.

Tobacco use

Research from 2019 Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source identifies tobacco use as a primary risk factor for oral cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source notes that many forms of tobacco use can cause oral cancer. These uses can include Trusted Source National Institute on Drug Abuse Governmental authority Go to source :

  • cigarettes
  • cigars
  • pipes
  • hookah pipes
  • chewing tobacco
  • snuff
  • dip
  • snus

Chewing betel nut, also known as areca nut, also increases the risk of lip cancer. This is particularly true when betel nut is mixed with tobacco, according to the NCI.

Learn more about the health effects of smoking.

Alcohol use

A 2010 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source found that alcohol use increased the risk of oral cancer. The same research found that this risk decreased after stopping drinking for 10–15 years.

When combined, alcohol and tobacco use produce a significantly higher risk of oral cancer than either factor alone.

HPV

Among all sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HPV is the most common, according to the CDC Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source .

HPV is a risk factor for throat cancer. The CDC notes that HPV does not typically cause lip cancer.

However, cancer that starts in the throat can spread to the mouth and lips.

Learn more about risk factors and treatments for HPV.

Other risk factors

The NCI lists additional risk factors for lip cancer, including:

  • sun exposure over long periods
  • exposure to artificial ultraviolet (UV) light, such as in tanning beds
  • being male assigned at birth
  • age older than 45 years Trusted Source National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program Governmental authority Go to source

How can you prevent lip cancer?

Certain lip cancer risk factors, such as age and sex, are out of your control. However, you can take steps to modify other risk factors.

You may be able to lower your risk of lip cancer by:

  • avoiding excessive sun exposure if possible
  • quitting smoking and use of tobacco products
  • reducing your alcohol consumption
  • wearing sunscreen on your lips

Get tips for building a quit plan for smoking.

How do doctors diagnose lip cancer?

Your dentist or primary care physician will likely examine your mouth for lip and other oral cancers during routine checkups. If they identify an area they think could be cancerous, they will take several steps to confirm or rule out a diagnosis.

First, they may have you return for a follow-up appointment in 1–2 weeks to see whether the area or spot has improved on its own.

Next, your doctor will likely order a biopsy or exfoliative cytology. Both of these procedures remove a small sample of tissue for testing by a pathologist. A biopsy or cytology can confirm whether cancer cells are present and provide information about the specific type of cancer.

If your doctor thinks your lip cancer may have spread to other parts of your body, they may order tests to identify and evaluate where the cancer has progressed. These tests may include:

These tests can help inform the type and stage of lip cancer. Your doctor will review your test results with you and discuss care options to develop a treatment plan that is right for you.

What are treatments for lip cancer?

Doctors develop a lip cancer treatment plan based on factors including your cancer type and stage, your personal medical history, and your treatment goals. Treatment options for lip cancer include the following.

Surgery

Surgery is a common treatment for all stages of lip cancer, according to the NCI.

Surgery aims to remove all cancerous tissue while preserving as much healthy tissue as possible. Depending on how far the cancer has spread, surgeons may remove areas from the lip, bone, or neck.

Surgery for lip cancer can also involve plastic surgery to restore the function or appearance of certain areas. This can include skin grafts, dental implants, and bone reconstruction.

Radiation

Radiation therapy uses targeted rays of energy to kill cancer cells.

This can include external radiation, which uses a machine that aims radiation at a specific area from outside the body.

Internal radiation therapy uses contained forms of radiation — such as seeds, needles, catheters, or wire — that doctors place directly into the cancer or the tissue near it.

Chemotherapy

Doctors may recommend chemotherapy in combination with other treatment options. There are many forms of chemotherapy. Your doctor will discuss your options, including the benefits and risks of each.

Clinical trials

Through clinical trials, researchers are testing new therapies for many cancers, including lip cancer. These trials can offer access to emerging treatments while they are still in development.

Your doctor can talk with you about available clinical trials and your eligibility to participate in them.

Supportive therapies

Some treatments for lip cancer can have difficult side effects. To address all aspects of your treatment, your lip cancer care plan may include:

  • speech therapy
  • nutrition and dietary guidance
  • physical and occupational therapy
  • psychological and emotional support

Other frequently asked questions

These are some other questions people often ask about lip cancer.

Is lip cancer fatal?

According to 2012–2018 data from the NCI Trusted Source National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program Governmental authority Go to source , the 5-year relative survival rate for lip cancer is 91.4%. The NCI also reports that the risk of death from lip cancer increases with age. People older than 75 account for the majority of lip cancer deaths.

Does lip cancer spread fast?

Data from a 2017 study Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source found that the rate of spread for squamous cell carcinoma is 11% in the lips, significantly higher than the rate for squamous cell carcinoma overall. Because of the risk of lip cancer spreading, contact your dentist or doctor right away if you have a sore or lump on your lip that does not go away.

Does lip cancer itch?

Lip cancer can develop as melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. Symptoms of melanoma include a spot or lesion that changes or develops new symptoms, including itching, bleeding, or crusting. Contact your doctor for any spot or area on your lip that causes unusual symptoms or any symptom that concerns you.

Summary

Lip cancer is a type of oral cancer. Common symptoms include a sore on your lip that does not go away, pain or numbness in your lip, or a lump or area of thickness on or around your lips.

Early detection is key for effective lip cancer treatment. Talk with your doctor or dentist about routine lip cancer screenings or any unusual symptoms on your lip.

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Medical Reviewer: Julie Scott, DNP, ANP-BC, AOCNP
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 22
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