Your lips help you communicate with the world. When you have white bumps on them, you may feel self-conscious. These bumps can have various causes. While most aren’t concerning, sometimes white bumps can indicate oral cancer. Seeking medical attention can ensure you stay as healthy as possible.
Numerous causes can lead to white bumps on the lips. These include:
Fordyce spots: These harmless, tiny (1 to 2 millimeter) white bumps inside the lips are visible sebaceous, or oil-producing, glands. These spots tend to get bigger as a person gets older. A person may have one small bump or as many as 100 bumps on the lips, typically on the inner portion.
Herpes simplex: Oral herpes can cause white bumps or canker sores on the lips. These may first appear as small sores, then become blistered and fluid-filled.
Milia: Common in babies, milia are small, white bumps that occur when dead skin cells become trapped in the skin. While milia most commonly occur on the face, they also can appear on the lips.
Oral cancer: A white bump with a flat or raised texture may appear on the face. The bump is usually painless at first, but may eventually start to bleed or ulcerate. Sun exposure, alcohol abuse, tobacco use (especially chewing tobacco), and the human papillomavirus (HPV) are all known oral cancer causes.
Oral thrush: Oral thrush is a fungal infection that causes white lesions on the lips, mouth, gums, or tonsils. The fungus Candida albicans is the most common fungal strain to cause oral thrush.
Sometimes white bumps on the lips are a harmless genetic variation. Just as some people have moles or birthmarks, others may have white bumps on the lips.
When to seek help
White bumps on the lips are rarely a reason to seek emergency medical attention. However, you may wish to make an appointment with your doctor if you have the following symptoms along with white bumps on the lips:
- bumps that are painful
- bumps that bleed
- feeling as if something is caught in your throat
- jaw or neck swelling
- numbness of your tongue
- trouble chewing or swallowing
- fever or sore throat
If your white bumps don’t go away after two weeks, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Your doctor will take a full medical history and conduct a physical exam to view the white bumps on your lips. The doctor will feel your face and jaw for swelling and examine your lips and the insides of your lips. They will also examine your neck for lymph node swelling.
If necessary, your doctor may swab your lip. This is known as a culture. A laboratory can test the culture to determine if bacteria, viruses, or fungi may be causing the bumps. If your doctor suspects you may have oral cancer, a tissue sample may be collected to test for cancerous cells.
In many cases, a doctor may be able to diagnose the white bumps on your lips by a visual examination. Blood tests can also determine if the herpes virus is present.
Treatment for white bumps on the lips depends on the cause of your symptoms. Some conditions, such as Fordyce spots, do not require any treatment. However, if you don’t like the appearance of your Fordyce spots, removal is possible. Doctors can use techniques such as electrosurgery or laser treatments to remove them.
Thrush is often treated with anti-fungal medications, such as a liquid solution you swish in your mouth and swallow.
Antiviral medications can temporarily eliminate your oral herpes symptoms, but they won’t permanently cure the viral infection.
Oral cancers require different treatments based on the condition’s severity. Treatments can include surgical removal of the affected lesion, chemotherapy, or radiation to stop the cancer’s spread.
Regardless of the cause of white bumps on your lips, avoid picking at them. This can cause the area to appear more irritated and increase the potential for infection.
With your doctor’s permission, you may apply an ointment to your lips to keep them from getting too dry and painful. Rinsing with warm saltwater can also help minimize irritation. Mix a half-teaspoon of salt in a cup of warm water and swish the water in your mouth before spitting it out.