We explore 10 causes of numbness affecting the lips, including which symptoms indicate a medical emergency and when to seek advice from a doctor.
Contents of this article:
Cold weather or sensitive skin is often the reason for temporary tingling lips.
Sensations in the body are communicated through the body's nervous system, which is made up of nerves and cells.
The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system, and the rest of the body makes up the peripheral nervous system.
Peripheral neuropathy refers to nerve damage in the peripheral nervous system. A common symptom is a numbness or a tingling sensation. All parts of the body, including the lips, can be affected.
Peripheral neuropathy is not usually the cause of tingling lips. More often, temporary conditions affecting the lips are to blame, such as sensitive skin or cold weather.
How suddenly lip tingling develops, and whether there are other symptoms present, can give a person clues as to the cause and severity.
Ten causes of tingling lips
There is a range of conditions that can cause tingling lips or numbness, including:
Applying a plain formula lip balm to chapped lips will limit any futher irritation.
An allergic reaction that affects the lips usually appears as a swelling under the skin, known as angioedema.
It is most often caused by an allergy to food or medication. A person can help a medical professional diagnose the allergy by keeping track of any potential triggers.
In the case of a severe reaction, a person should also be aware of the signs of anaphylaxis. Urgent medical care is needed if someone has difficulty breathing, feels faint, or collapses.
2. Chapped lips
Chapped or cracked lips are often sore or tingle. This can happen when lips become very dry during the winter, in a hot climate, or if someone has a skin condition, such as eczema.
Using a moisturizing lip balm can make skin softer and prevent cracking or splitting.
A person who already has chapped, sore lips should use a plain formula, such as petroleum jelly, that does not contain any ingredients that will cause further irritation.
3. Cold sores
The first sign of a cold sore is a tingling or burning sensation around the mouth and lips, which then develops into small sores filled with fluid.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is very infectious and passed from person to person by close contact, such as kissing. The virus is usually inactive but may break out in the form of cold sores from time to time.
Cold sores will usually heal without treatment in 7 to 10 days, but using an antiviral cream as soon as a person feels tingling lips may help to speed up the healing process.
Most children will experience chickenpox at some point. However, after they recover, the virus remains inactive in the body. Later in life, it can re-emerge as shingles, an infection that causes an itching, burning, or tingling feeling in the skin, as well as painful blisters or a rash.
Shingles can affect any part of the body, including the lips, and the first symptom is often tingling or burning. This will be followed by the development of fluid-filled blisters on the skin that may appear on their own or in a cluster.
Antiviral drugs can reduce pain and help blisters to heal, particularly if taken as soon as symptoms appear. Relaxing, reducing stress, and placing a cool, damp washcloth on blisters can help ease the symptoms.
5. Nerve damage
Neuropathy can be caused by physical damage to the skin, such as a burn.
If the lips are exposed to extreme heat or cold, are sunburnt, or come into contact with a toxic substance such as bleach, it may damage the nerves and lead to tingling, numbness, and pain.
Strokes are a medical emergency caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain. The signs of stroke appear very quickly, so a person should seek emergency help if someone has any of these symptoms:
- sudden numbness or weakness on one side of the body
- loss of balance or dizziness
- confusion or difficulty speaking
- a severe headache with no apparent reason
- drooping face, mouth, or eye on one side
7. Cranial nerve trauma
The cranial nerves run from the brain to the head and face and control movement and sensation.
An injury to the brain, such as a concussion, can damage these nerves and affect how well they work.
The facial nerve is one of the cranial nerves. If it is damaged, it could cause a loss of sensation in the face, include tingling or numbness in the lips.
A head injury of any kind can be serious and should always be checked by a medical professional.
8. Panic attack
One symptom of a panic attack can be a feeling of pins and needles. If tingling lips are accompanied by symptoms such as shortness of breath, a racing heartbeat, or shaking limbs, it may be a sign that someone is experiencing a panic attack, or about to have one.
A panic attack can be very distressing, but will usually only last for 5 to 20 minutes. Consult a healthcare professional if panic attacks happen regularly, as they will be able to advise on treatment and support.
Lupus is a disease of the immune system that can affect many parts of the body, including the nerves. If the tissue surrounding nerves is swollen, the pressure may affect the nerves' ability to transmit information.
Lupus can be very difficult to diagnose due to the number of symptoms. Other symptoms that could indicate damage to the nervous system include problems with vision, dizziness, pain affecting the face, or a drooping eyelid.
10. Raynaud's phenomenon
This condition affects blood flow to the farthest parts of the body, such as the hands and feet, but can also affect the lips and tongue.
Blood vessels will respond to the cold or to stress by shrinking, which causes a feeling of extreme cold, tingling, or numbness. It may also turn the affected part of the body white or blue.
When to seek medical attention
An allergy test will help identify the cause of an allergic reaction.
If someone displays any symptoms of stroke, call 911 or the local emergency number. It is important to seek urgent treatment to limit the damage that a stroke can cause to the brain and body.
An allergist or immunologist can diagnose an allergy and help someone understand the triggers for an allergic reaction, such as food or drink to avoid.
In the case of a severe allergy, someone may show signs of anaphylactic shock. Emergency medical care is needed if a person has trouble breathing, their throat swells, and they have difficulty swallowing, they develop hives, or have stomach cramps.
Symptoms of the less common conditions associated with tingling lips, such as Lupus, shingles, or Raynaud's phenomenon should be checked by a healthcare professional. Getting a proper diagnosis is the best way to begin treating and preventing tingling lips.
The most common reasons for tingling lips are physical damage to the lips, viruses that affect the skin, and allergic reactions. These causes should all be easy to spot and to treat at home, although prescription medication may be needed.
More serious medical conditions are associated with tingling lips and a knowledge of the additional symptoms can help a person receive early diagnosis and treatment.
Knowing the warning signs of a stroke or a severe allergic reaction can save a life and limit the effects of a medical emergency.