Cyanosis is a condition in which your skin takes on a slight blue or purple discoloration due to a lack of oxygenated blood in the skin and mucus membranes. The blue color is from an increased concentration of deoxyhemoglobin.
With the exception of getting a sunburn – or a suntan, for the lucky ones – our skin basically stays the same color. Sure, we might get a flush in our cheeks when we are aroused, or a flush of red in our chest when we physically exert ourselves, but generally speaking, our skin doesn’t change all that much.
However, can you imagine waking up in the morning to find a strange blue tint to your skin? No, you aren’t being taken over by aliens, but you may be suffering from a condition called cyanosis.
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What is Cyanosis?
By medical definition, cyanosis is a condition in which your skin takes on a slight blue or purple discoloration due to a lack of oxygenated blood in the skin and mucus membranes. The blue color is from an increased concentration of deoxyhemoglobin. This is generally considered a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention, although there are some forms of cyanosis that are less serious, and typically temporary. When your blood becomes deoxygenated, the change in color may be gradual, beginning in the nail beds and extremities.
However, when there is a more serious problem, other areas in your torso may also take on a blue tinge, along with your lips and tongue. At this point, seek a doctor as soon as possible, as this can be a sign of extreme hypoxia – a lack of oxygen reaching the tissues.
What Causes Cyanosis?
As you may suspect, a lack of oxygen in the blood is related to both the respiratory and circulatory systems. This condition is commonly found in those who struggle to get enough oxygen, such as someone with asthma, emphysema or other respiratory infections that may be blocking the airway. On the other hand, issues with your heart health may also reduce the amount of blood being pumped throughout the body. People who have heart disease or have experienced heart failure in the past may not have the capacity to pump blood throughout the body, particularly to the extremities.
There are a few different variants of cyanosis, which have similar characteristics, but may signal very different problems. Acrocyanosis, for example, affects the extremities and digits, including the hands, feet, fingers, toes, ankles and wrists. There is no pain associated with this condition, and it is generally considered harmless, albeit alarming, and it can also be persistent, lasting for weeks or months at a time. This can be caused by poor circulation, as with regular cyanosis, but can also be brought on by cold temperatures, at which point the arterioles in the extremities do not pump blood, resulting in the blue or purple tint.
Peripheral cyanosis is temporary, and is typically in response to acute hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen being delivered to the entire body, such as when holding your breath, diving, or functioning at high altitudes where oxygen concentration is low. Central cyanosis is the most dangerous form, and is identified by the lips and tongue taking on a blue tint. This symptom should not be ignored and medical attention should be sought immediately.
Generally speaking, cyanosis may be a secondary symptom of other conditions, which is why seeing a doctor is so important. Some of these other conditions may include blood clots, pneumonia, seizures, croup cough and drug overdose, among others.
Symptoms of Cyanosis
As has been mentioned numerous times, the primary symptom of cyanosis includes a bluish-purple tinge to the skin on various parts of the body. This may be accompanied by sweating or swelling in those areas, particularly in the extremities. In some cases, you may also experience light-headedness, fatigue, lethargy or even fainting. You may also have trouble breathing, or shortness of breath, as well as the thickening of skin beneath the nails.
Treatment for Cyanosis
When your body is denied the right amount of oxygen, it can impair your normal functions and your long-term health, so treatment is essential. If your cyanotic appearance is being caused by an underlying health condition, treatment of that particular problem may reduce the symptoms. For treatment of an acute case, you can try warming that area of the body, which should encourage the arterioles to open and blood to flow.
Oxygen therapy is also recommended for many patients, or inhalers can be prescribed to improve air flow into the lungs. Being given intravenous fluids may also reduce the symptoms. In the most serious cases, surgery may be required to treat the underlying condition that is denying your body the oxygen it requires.
In the case of acrocyanosis – the persistent and non-threatening form of this condition affecting the digits – there is not an urgent need to see a doctor. Life style modification, dietary and hygiene counseling, avoidance of cold help the situation.
A Final Word
If you notice that your skin has taken on a blue tint, it can be very upsetting, and while this is a rather rare condition, there are plenty of effective treatment options. Speak with your doctor, bring those oxygen levels up and get your skin back to normal!