DermNet NZ

Facts about the skin from DermNet New Zealand Trust. Topic index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Actinic cheilitis

What is actinic cheilitis?

Actinic cheilitis or cheilosis is a term used to describe benign or pre-malignant changes on the lip due to chronic sun exposure. It is also often called solar cheilitis, and sometimes, actinic cheilitis with histological atypia.

The word cheilitis means an inflammatory condition of the lips. Actinic cheilitis affects the vermilion, i.e. the red part of the lip.

What are the symptoms of actinic cheilitis?

Actinic cheilitis most commonly results in the following features:

Less common features of actinic cheilitis include:

Well-defined scaly areas on the lips in actinic cheilitis may be actinic keratoses or Bowen disease (squamous cell carcinoma in situ).

Invasive squamous cell carcinoma should be suspected if a persistent ulcer or lump develops.

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Actinic cheilitis Actinic cheilitis Actinic cheilitis
Actinic cheilitis

What is the cause of actinic cheilitis?

Actinic cheilitis is due to damage to cellular DNA by chronic sun exposure. Smoking may contribute; cheilitis tends to be more severe in smokers.

What investigations should be done?

In most cases, no specific investigations are required in actinic cheilitis. A skin biopsy may be taken if skin cancer or an inflammatory skin disease is suspected.

The pathologist may report premalignant changes in the cells of the epidermis (outer layer of the skin) and sun-related changes such as solar elastosis in the underlying dermis (connective tissue layer).


Treatment options include:

Limiting sun exposure, wearing a hat with a good brim, and using a lip balm containg sunscreen are recommended. Men can consider growing a moustache. Smoking should be stopped.

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Author: Dr Mark Duffill, Hamilton, NZ

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