Cyanosis is a physical sign causing bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes. Cyanosis is caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood. Cyanosis is associated with cold temperatures, heart failure, lung diseases, and smothering. It is seen in infants at birth as a result of heart defects, respiratory distress syndrome, or lung and breathing problems.
Blood contains a red pigment (hemoglobin) in its red blood cells. Hemoglobin picks up oxygen from the lungs, then circulates it through arteries and releases it to cells through tiny capillaries. After giving up its oxygen, blood circulates
The blue discoloration of cyanosis is seen most readily in the beds of the fingernails and toenails, and on the lips and tongue. It often appears transiently as a result of slowed blood flow through the skin due to the cold. As such, it is not a serious symptom. However, in other cases, cyanosis is a serious symptom of underlying disease.
Causes and symptoms
The blue color of the skin and mucous membranes is caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood. Low blood oxygen may be caused by poor blood circulation, or heart or breathing problems. It can also be caused by being in a low-oxygen environment or by carbon monoxide poisoning. More rarely, cyanosis can be present at birth as a sign of congenital heart disease,in which some of the blood is not pumped to the lungs where oxygen would make the blood a bright red color. Instead, the blood goes to the rest of the body and remains unoxygenated. Cyanosis also may be caused by poisoning from chemicals, drugs, or contaminated food and water.
Other signs of low blood oxygen may accompany cyanosis, including feeling lightheaded or fainting.
Treatment of the underlying disease can restore proper color to the skin.
If the underlying condition (such as heart or lung disease) can be properly treated, the skin will return to its normal shade.
Carolson, Karen J., Stephanie A. Eisenstat, and Terra Ziporyn. The Harvard Guide to Women's Health. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Franck, Irene, and David Brownstone. The Parent's Desk Reference. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991.
Carol A. Turkington
Hemoglobin—A colored substance (pigment) in the blood that carries oxygen to tissues and gives blood its red color.
Respiratory distress syndrome—Also known as hyaline membrane disease, this is a condition of premature infants in which the lungs are imperfectly expanded due to a lack of a substance on the lungs that reduces tension.