Classification of cleft lip and cleft palate

Cleft palate and cleft lip may occur independent of each other or at the same time. The terms below are often used to describe and classify cleft lip and cleft palate and to describe a cleft more precisely.

Basic classification of cleft palate

A cleft palate is first categorized according to whether it affects the hard palate, the soft palate, or both.

  • The hard palate is the front part of the roof of the mouth.
  • The soft palate is the back part of the roof of the mouth. This description may include whether the uvula is affected.

See an illustration comparing a normal mouth with two types of cleft palate.

Classification of cleft lip

Cleft lip is classified according to its location and severity.

  • Unilateral cleft lip affects one side of the mouth; bilateral cleft lip affects both sides of the mouth.
  • Complete or incomplete. A complete cleft lip is a deep split in the upper lip extending into one or both sides of the nose; an incomplete cleft lip affects only one side of the upper lip. It may appear as a slight indentation or as a deep notch.

See an illustration comparing a complete cleft lip and an incomplete cleft lip.

If cleft lip occurs with cleft palate, the upper alveolar ridges, which are where the teeth sit, are also involved.

Combination terms

Complete classification of a cleft palate combines all of the appropriate terms. For example:

  • A cleft of the hard palate with an incomplete unilateral cleft lip is a cleft in the front of the mouth and a cleft in one side of the upper lip that doesn't extend to the nose.
  • A cleft of both the hard and soft palate with bilateral complete cleft lip describes a cleft that extends from the soft palate to the hard palate, and includes the alveolar ridge. Both sides of the lip have clefts extending to the nose.

Last Updated: January 21, 2010

Author: Debby Golonka, MPH

Medical Review: John Pope, MD - Pediatrics & Donald R. Mintz, MD - Otolaryngology

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