Cyanosis is when your skin, lips and/or nails turn a bluish tone. It occurs when your blood lacks the oxygen it needs to reach the different tissues in your body. Cyanosis can be caused by many different conditions. Some may be serious medical conditions. Diagnosis and treatment depend on the cause. Oxygen therapy is usually a first treatment.
Cyanosis is the medical term for when your skin, lips or nails turn blue due to a lack of oxygen in your blood. If you have darker skin, cyanosis may be easier to see in your lips, gums, nails and around your eyes. The word cyanosis comes from the word cyan. Cyan is a blue-green color.
Normally, red blood cells carry oxygen to the tissues in your body. Your blood is red when it’s filled with oxygen because your blood cells are bright red. As a result, when oxygen-filled blood circulates throughout your body, your skin has a pink or red tone.
When there’s not enough oxygen circulating in your blood, it’s darker and more of a blue or purple tone. The area of your body that’s most affected by cyanosis can help determine the cause.
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Cyanosis can mean your organs, muscles and tissues aren’t getting the amount of blood they need to function properly. Many different conditions can cause cyanosis. While blue skin and lips aren’t always a cause for concern, some conditions do need immediate medical treatment. Conditions causing cyanosis may be related to your lungs, heart or central nervous system.
The three types of cyanosis are circumoral (perioral), peripheral and central.
Circumoral cyanosis is when only your mouth or lips turn blue. It often occurs when your blood vessels shrink in response to cold temperatures. Circumoral cyanosis is common — and can be normal— in newborns. In older children, it may appear when they go outside in cold weather.
Peripheral cyanosis is when only your hands, fingers, feet and/or toes turn blue. This can happen in very cold weather if your hands and feet aren’t well protected. It’s rarely life-threatening, but it’s important to find out the cause because it may need quick treatment to prevent permanent injury.
Central cyanosis is when other parts of your body are affected in addition to your hands and feet. This may include your chest, cheeks, tongue, gums and lips. Serious heart, lung or blood conditions may be the cause of central cyanosis. It’s very important to seek treatment immediately.
The main symptom of cyanosis is a bluish discoloration of your skin. The bluish tone may also affect your lips, tongue, gums, ears and nails.
If you have darker skin, cyanosis may look more gray or white. It may also show up more around your lips, tongue, gums, nails and eyes.
Cyanosis is typically caused by another condition. Depending on what’s causing the cyanosis, other symptoms you may experience include:
Depending on what type of cyanosis you have, your skin, lips, tongue, gums, eyes or nails may look different shades of blue or purple. If you have darker skin, cyanosis may look white or gray.
Cyanosis is usually caused by a lack of oxygen in your blood. This may be because your blood doesn’t have enough oxygen in it, or because blood vessels are exposed to cold temperatures. Circulating blood keeps your organs and body parts warm. But if it’s very cold out, the blood vessels in your hands, feet and ears clamp down to keep your body temperature normal.
Many conditions can cause your blood to lack the oxygen it needs.
Cyanosis is a symptom, and your healthcare provider will want to determine the cause of it. They’ll begin by performing a physical examination. They’ll ask you about your symptoms. Questions they may ask include:
Your healthcare provider may order tests to determine the cause of the cyanosis. These tests can include various blood, lung and heart tests:
Cyanosis can be a symptom of many different conditions. The cause of your cyanosis will determine the treatment.
One of the first treatments your healthcare provider may use is oxygen therapy. Oxygen therapy provides you with extra oxygen to help boost your levels quickly. You may need a breathing machine or ventilator depending on the severity of your condition.
Other possible treatments include:
If cold temperatures or a condition such as Raynaud’s phenomenon caused your cyanosis, you may have to make lifestyle changes. You should dress in warm clothes when you plan to be outside. When you’re inside, make sure you’re in a heated room. It’s important that you keep your body warm.
There are many different reasons for cyanosis and they can’t all be prevented. But there are some things you can do to prevent the condition.
Your healthcare provider may recommend you stop taking any medications that restrict your blood flow. You should also quit smoking and limit your caffeine intake. Make sure you dress warmly if you go into cold temperatures, especially taking care of your ears, fingers, toes and nose.
The outlook for cyanosis depends on the reason for the condition and how quickly you receive treatment. It’s generally not life-threatening, but see your provider if you have any other associated symptoms or if the cyanosis happens when you’re warm and at rest.
Many conditions and disorders can cause cyanosis. Some are more serious than others. If you have any of the following symptoms along with bluish skin, go to your nearest emergency room or call 911:
If your baby or child has cyanosis along with any of the following symptoms, take them to the nearest emergency room or call 911:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cyanosis is when you have bluish skin, nails or lips due to a lack of oxygen in your blood. Cyanosis occurs for many reasons. While not always serious, cyanosis can be caused by a severe medical condition. It’s important to seek medical attention right away if you or your child have cyanosis along with symptoms such as difficulty breathing to ensure that you have the best outcome.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/17/2022.
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