What Are the Causes of Cyanosis?

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  • Written By: Sandra Koehler
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 16 September 2019
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When the oxygen level in the blood becomes less than adequate, it reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to the body. This medical condition, called cyanosis, can cause the outward appearance of the skin to change from a normal pink undertone to a blue or even purple hue. The causes of cyanosis are varied and can range from external forces working against the body to internal forces upsetting the body’s homeostasis, or internal balance. The extent of discoloration is determined by the original cause and the magnitude of oxygen deprivation.

Cyanosis is commonly seen in the extremities, especially the nail beds of the fingers and toes, and can occur in face area at the nose, ears and around the mouth. Everyday situations such as exposure to cold temperatures or lower levels of oxygen in the air due to pollution, high elevations and even a lack of fresh air can be among the common causes of cyanosis. In these cases, however, the effects of a drop in the oxygen levels is temporary and normal color returns as the area gets replenished with oxygen.


Some medical conditions can be a big contributor to cyanosis. Respiratory ailments such as bronchitis and pneumonia can temporarily restrict normal breathing and contribute to the lowered oxygen levels. Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are medical conditions where oxygen cannot flow normally through the airways. This is due to inflammation or swelling, and damage of the air passageways. Chronic or long-standing conditions can significantly decrease the amount of oxygen being delivered to the body over time. If left untreated, the body can sustain permanent damage.

Cardiac or heart conditions can also be among the common causes of cyanosis due to the inability of the heart to effectively pump oxygenated blood to the rest of the body. These can include such things as congenital heart disease, or an obstruction of blood flow from birth. Other medical conditions affecting the heart, and such as myocardial infarction, or a heart attack, and heart failure are serious disorders that are also major contributors to cyanosis.

In many instances, if the causes of cyanosis are treated, the discoloration and resulting effects of a lack of oxygen can be reversed. However, if the internal organs or limbs have experienced a significant decrease in oxygen for an extended period of time, the effects may become permanent. In extreme cases, oxygen therapy, where air with high levels of oxygen are pumped through the body, typically through a plastic tubing placed inside the nostrils called a nasal cannula, is necessary to keep oxygen levels optimal.


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