Bluish Skin Discoloration
Cyanosis is condition in which a person develops a bluish tint to the skin, fingernails, and fingertips. It's caused by not having enough oxyge...

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Blue Skin Discoloration - Cyanosis

Cyanosis is a term used to describe a bluish tint to your skin, as well as your fingernails and fingertips. It is a condition caused by not having enough oxygen in your blood. In people with light skin, such as Caucasians, this is quite distinctive. It can be more difficult to distinguish in people with darker skin, such those of African descent. In people with darker skin, it may be more obvious in their nails.

What Are the Common Underlying Causes of Cyanosis?

Cyanosis can develop quickly or it can develop over time as a result of a chronic (long-term) health problem. Many of the health conditions that cause cyanosis are the result of abnormalities in the blood, lungs, or heart. Blood abnormalities may make it difficult for the blood to absorb oxygen. Lung abnormalities may be related to the following conditions:

  • a blood clot in the vessels of the lung (pulmonary embolism)
  • an infection in the airways such as bronchitis
  • diseases that affect lung function such as asthma or COPD
  • pneumonia
  • obstruction of the airway caused by a foreign object (choking)
  • epiglottitis (infection of the tissue around the windpipe)
  • seizures

Abnormalities with the heart can also cause cyanosis and may include:

  • heart failure
  • heart defects diagnosed at birth (congenital)
  • cardiac arrest

Other issues can also cause cyanosis. These health issues include:

  • overdoses of certain medications
  • hypothermia (prolonged exposure to the cold)
  • exposure to poisons such as cyanide
  • venous thrombosis (a blood clot in a vein)
  • Raynaud’s syndrome (a condition resulting in severe restriction of the blood flow to the fingers or toes)

Most cases of cyanosis are serious. If cyanosis develops, it typically indicates that the body is not able to acquire enough oxygen. Over time, this condition can be life threatening.

When Should You Seek Emergency Help?

If you experience bluish skin you should call your doctor. If you develop bluish skin you should seek emergency medical attention if the following symptoms also develop:

  • shortness of breath
  • breathing faster
  • needing to lean forward to breathe
  • chest pain
  • changes in mental status including confusion
  • fever
  • coughing up mucus that is dark

If you have a child that is cyanotic you should seek emergency medical attention if the following symptoms develop:

  • difficulty breathing
  • breathing more than 60 breaths each minute
  • grunting noises
  • loss of appetite
  • changes in mental status including irritability
  • child is not moving much and is limp
  • flaring nostrils when breathing

How Can the Symptoms of Cyanosis be Treated?

If your cyanosis is caused by Raynaud’s syndrome or hypothermia, you can treat this condition at home. Dress warmly and make sure that you stay in a room that is well heated.

If the symptoms of cyanosis are not caused by these conditions, you will need to seek medical attention. Your doctor will perform a complete physical exam and will ask you about your current health conditions and when your symptoms developed. Your doctor will also use several tests to determine what is causing your bluish skin color. Tests may include:

  • analysis of arterial blood gases
  • pulse oximetry to measure the level of oxygen in your blood
  • complete blood count (CBC)
  • X-ray of the chest
  • electrocardiogram (ECG) to measure the electrical activity of the heart

Once your doctor diagnoses the cause of your condition, he or she will be able to provide you with appropriate treatment. If you are having difficulty breathing, your doctor may also prescribe supplemental oxygen therapy. The oxygen will be delivered through a mask or a tube placed in your nose (nasal cannula).

What Are the Complications of Cyanosis?

Cyanosis typically indicates a serious life-threatening health problem. If you develop cyanosis you may experience difficulty breathing, cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, and even death.

How Can You Prevent Cyanosis?

Cyanosis may develop rapidly making it difficult to prevent. Additionally, symptoms of the condition may occur gradually over time making it difficult to detect changes in your skin color. This can complicate efforts to prevent cyanosis. However, if you have conditions that can cause cyanosis such as congestive heart failure or COPD, there are steps that you can take to help prevent cyanosis:

  • follow your doctor’s recommendations for care
  • get regular physical exams to monitor your health
  • call your doctor if you notice any changes in your health
Written by: Darla Burke
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by: George Krucik, MD
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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