Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Dry winter air chaps lips. When the lips do become chapped it is very common for children to lick their lips in an attempt to moisten them. Unfortunately, even though saliva soothes momentarily, it digests the lips rather than moistening them. This makes the lips and surrounding skin even more dry and irritated. The child licks his lips again, providing brief relief, but afterwards leaving the lips in even worse shape. This vicious cycle leads to painful, cracked, bleeding, lips.
To break this cycle the lips and the surrounding skin must be protected from the saliva. Explain the process to your son, and encourage him to make a real effort to stop licking. I understand that the habit is difficult to break. Thankfully other help is available. For milder cases, keeping the lips protected with an emollient such as Vaseline petrolatum or one of the lip balm sticks can be effective. When this doesn’t work, occasionally a small amount of the over-the-counter strength hydrocortisone cream can decrease the inflammation enough so that the Vaseline may be effective. If this fails, the most effective treatment is called 1-2-3 Ointment or Rosen’s Ointment. Your pharmacist can prepare this for you. It consists of 10 cc of Burrow’s Solution mixed with 20 grams of Aquaphor and enough plain zinc oxide paste (about 30 cc) to make a two ounce container. This mixture is extremely protective and healing. Applied liberally, it also makes a child less likely to lick his lips. It is, however, very white and some children refuse to use it in public. If this is the case, even applications at night or when they are not in public will be beneficial, in conjunction with more aesthetically pleasing treatments for public use.
Sometimes a humidifier, to keep the air moist during dry weather, can also help with preventing irritated, chapped lips. Ensuring that your child is drinking plenty of water can be helpful as well.
Last reviewed: May 25, 2009