If you have a sore on your lips, it's likely a cold sore, which is not alarming. However, seeking medical attention is still important as it may also be lip cancer.
These two conditions may look similar, but they’re actually very different. While one will go away on its own, the other can be life-threatening if not treated early.
In this article, you will learn the differences between lip cancer and cold sores, including how to tell them apart and how they’re treated.
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A cold sore is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It manifests as one or more small, painful, fluid-filled blisters, which usually appear on the lips, mouth, or nose.
The virus that causes cold sores is highly contagious and can be passed on through kissing, sharing utensils, or coming into contact with an infected person’s saliva.
Most people who contract HSV will develop cold sores at some point. Once you’re infected, the virus lies dormant in the body for the rest of your life. Although some people never experience another outbreak, many will have future outbreaks of cold sores, where the virus reactivates. These can be triggered by factors like stress, fatigue, a cold, or exposure to sunlight.
Lip cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the tissues of the lips. It can occur on the lower lip, upper lip, or both. Lip cancer is most often caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or from tanning beds.
Cigarette smoking is also a risk factor for developing lip cancer. People who smoke cigarettes are 15 times more likely¹ to develop the disease than people who don't smoke.
Symptoms of lip cancer can include a sore on the lips that don't heal, a white area on the lips that may be flat or raised, and pain or numbness in the affected area. There may be bleeding, swelling, or changes in the color of the lip tissue. There may also be changes in sensation on the lips, including numbness, tingling, or pain.
There are several ways to tell the difference between lip cancer and cold sores:
Duration: Cold sores typically last for 7–10 days and will go away on their own. Lip cancer will not go away on its own. This is often the main sign that a sore is cancerous.
Location: Cold sores usually develop around the edges of the lips, although they can also occur in other places, such as under the nose. Lip cancer can occur on either lip, but it's more likely to develop on the lower lip.
Appearance: Cold sores usually look like small, fluid-filled blisters, which then burst open, forming a sore. Lip cancer may look very much like a cold sore, or it may look more like a flat or raised whitish area.
Symptoms: Cold sores are usually painful, and there’s often a burning or tingling sensation in the area before the blister appears. When you first get cold sores, you may have other symptoms like fever, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes, although later outbreaks usually don’t cause these symptoms. Lip cancer may cause bleeding, pain, or numbness in the affected area.
There is no cure for HSV — the virus that causes cold sores. However, some treatments can help to shorten an outbreak's duration and relieve symptoms.
Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments for cold sores include creams, gels, and patches that you can apply to the affected area. These products can help to reduce discomfort associated with a cold sore. Some may also speed healing, such as docosanol (Abreva).
Your doctor can prescribe antiviral medications, which can help to shorten the duration of an outbreak. These drugs can also help to reduce the severity of your symptoms and decrease the chances of future outbreaks.
Lip cancer is treated with surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. The treatment type depends on the cancer stage and the individual's overall health.
Surgery is the most common treatment for lip cancer. The cancerous tissue is removed, and the surrounding area is repaired with stitches. Sometimes, all or part of the lip may need to be removed. If needed, reconstructive surgery can help repair the area afterward.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells. It can be used alone or in combination with surgery.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It can be given intravenously (through an IV) or orally (by mouth). Chemotherapy is often used in combination with radiation therapy and/or surgery.
Cold sores are a common and harmless condition that can be treated at home with OTC medications. However, lip cancer is a serious disease that can be fatal if left untreated. So, if you think you may have lip cancer, you must see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Here are some common questions about lip cancer and cold sores, along with their answers.
No, cold sores cannot turn into cancer. However, lip cancer sometimes resembles a cold sore. The risk of lip cancer is increased by long-term exposure to UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds and smoking cigarettes.
Lip cancer can take years to develop but can also happen faster. If you notice a sore on your lips that’s not healing within two weeks, see a doctor to find out whether it’s lip cancer. The sooner it’s caught, the easier it is to treat.
The symptoms of lip cancer include a sore or bump on the lips that don't heal, bleeds, and swells. Lip cancer can also cause changes in the color of the lips and pain or numbness in the affected area.
Yes, it's possible to cure lip cancer. Lip cancer is one of the most curable types of cancer. More than 90% of people with lip cancer become disease-free after treatment. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the greater the chances of curing cancer.