Conference Coverage

Clues to eczematous cheilitis may lie in the history



NEW YORK – Flaking, itchy, swollen lips represent more than a cosmetic problem. Eczematous cheilitis can interfere with communication and nutrition, but patients may be slow to seek help, Bethanee Schlosser, MD, PhD, said at the American Academy of Dermatology summer meeting.

One of the challenges in helping patients with lip problems is that lips are constantly in motion and constantly interacting with the outside world, said Dr. Schlosser, of the department of dermatology, Northwestern University, Chicago. There’s ongoing low-level trauma with phonation, eating, drinking, and general environmental exposure, she said. Eczematous cheilitis will present with scaling and erythema of the vermilion lips, with lower lip involvement often more pronounced than symptoms on the upper lip. Fissuring and erosion are sometimes, but not always, present as well.

In addition to flaking and redness, Dr. Schlosser noted that patients will complain of dry lips, irritation, itching, and sometimes tingling.

Sorting out the etiology of eczematous cheilitis requires a thorough history. “Ask about habits, such as lip licking, picking, or biting,” she said. Recent dental work, braces, or other appliances for alignment or temporomandibular joint problems can introduce both mechanical irritation and potential allergens, and even musical instruments can be culprits, such as when an oboe reed causes an allergic reaction.

Personal hygiene products, cosmetics, gum chewing, and candy consumption can be the irritant culprits, noted Dr. Schlosser. Careful questioning of patients and examination of the products used can provide clues, since dyes and pigments in cosmetics and gum may provoke reactions.

History taking should also include questions about tobacco in all forms, marijuana, and prescription medication, which can cause lip problems. And it’s important to ask about skin disease in general, to determine if symptoms are present in other anatomic locations, and to ask about any family history of skin disease, she said.

Endogenous contributors can include true atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and nutritional deficiencies. Psoriatic cheilitis can have prominent crusting and exfoliation. In a Brazilian study that evaluated patents with cutaneous psoriasis and age-, race-, and sex-matched controls with no history of skin disease, psoriasis was associated with geographic tongue, with an odds ratio of 5.0 (95% CI 1.5-16.8). Geographic stomatitis can also be seen, said Dr. Schlosser. Tongue fissures were also more common among those with psoriasis cheilitis (OR 2.7, 95% confidence interval, 1.3-5.6) in the same study (Med Oral Patol Oral Cir Bucal. 2009 Aug 1;14[8]:e371-5).

For psoriatic cheilitis, looking beyond the lips can help refine the diagnosis, she noted. There may be intra-oral signs or signs of extra-oral involvement, especially on the scalp, ears, and genitalia. Koebnerization may be difficult to detect on the lips, but may be present elsewhere. A family history of psoriasis may also tip the scales toward this diagnosis.

Exogenous causes of eczematous cheilitis are much more common and can include contact with irritants and allergens, factitial cheilitis, and cheilitis medicamentosa, Dr Schlosser pointed out.

Allergic contact dermatitis can come from local exposure (to cosmetics and other personal care items, for example) or from incidental exposures. Components of saliva can become concentrated when saliva dries outside the oral cavity, so for chronic lip lickers, saliva alone can be sufficiently irritating to provoke a cheilitis, Dr. Schlosser said.

Transfer of an irritant or allergen is also possible from other body sites, as when a nail-chewer develops allergic cheilitis from an ingredient in nail polish. Transfer from products used on other facial areas and the hair is also possible, as is “connubial transfer,” when an allergen is transferred from an intimate partner.

Cutaneous patch tests can be helpful in pinpointing the offending agent, or agents, according to Dr. Schlosser. She cited a study of 91 patients (77% of whom were female) who underwent patch testing for eczematous cheilitis. The researchers determined that 45% of patients had allergic contact cheilitis (Int J Dermatol. 2016 Jul;55[7]:e386-91).

The patch testing revealed that fragrances, balsam of Peru (Myroxylon pereirae resin), preservatives, and even metals such as nickel and gold were common allergens. The findings echo those in another database review that showed fragrances, M. pereirae, and nickel as the top three allergens on patch testing for lip cheilitis.

Dr. Schlosser said that the most common offending sources are lipsticks, makeup, other cosmetic products, and moisturizer, which are responsible for 10% or more of reactions.

Whatever the etiology, the treatment of eczematous cheilitis can be divided conceptually into two phases. During the induction phase, use of a low- to mid-potency topical corticosteroid ointment quiets inflammation. Examples include alclometasone 0.05%, desonide 0.05%, fluticasone 0.005%, or triamcinolone 0.1%. “Ointment formulations are preferred,” said Dr. Schlosser, since they won’t dissolve so easily with lip licking and will adhere well to the surface of the vermilion lip.

Next, a topical calcineurin inhibitor such as tacrolimus 0.1% can be used for maintenance. Other topical medications, especially topical anesthetics, should be used with caution, she said.

For psoriatic cheilitis, induction with 5% salicylic acid ointment can be followed by the topical calcineurin inhibitor phase, said Dr. Schlosser.

Dr. Schlosser disclosed financial relationships with Beiersdorf, Decision Support in Medicine, and UpToDate.

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