What Causes Sudden Pale Skin?

Pale skin does not just describe the color of your complexion. The sudden or unusual lightening of one’s skin tone can occur in all skin tones. Physiologically, pale skin occurs because of reduced blood flow and oxygen, as well as a low red blood cell count.

It can occur due to different reasons, from emotional distress to medical conditions like anemia and vitamin deficiency. Some underlying causes of pale skin are medical emergencies that need to be treated right away.

a woman looking into the mirror

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Emotional Distress  

In some cases, paleness can be brought on during times of emotional distress, such as fear or shock. Emotional distress can bring on vasovagal syncope, which can lead to paleness.

Other things that can trigger vasovagal syncope include excessive heat exposure, intense pain, the sight of blood, dehydration, or coughing.

Symptoms of vasovagal syncope include:

Treatment for vasovagal syncope varies depending on the severity. Some people may seldom experience an episode, whereas others may be prone to fainting spells. Immediate treatment typically involves lying down with your feet elevated to help restore blood flow to the brain.

To prevent vasovagal syncope:

  • Avoid triggers
  • Exercise only moderately
  • Eat a diet with a lot of salt
  • Discontinue medications that may lower blood pressure
  • Stay hydrated
  • Wear compression socks or abdominal binders
  • Take serotonin reuptake inhibitors to help moderate the response of the nervous system
  • Take medications to increase blood pressure
  • Take corticosteroids to keep fluid and sodium levels up

Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia refers to low blood sugar. The symptoms of low blood sugar vary from person to person. They can be mild to moderate or severe, and they typically come on suddenly.

Other than paleness, symptoms can include:

  • Shakiness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hunger
  • Headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, confused, or disoriented
  • Nervousness or irritability
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • A fast or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Inability to eat or drink
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness

The first-line treatment for hypoglycemia is the 15-15 rule, which involves eating at least 15 grams of carbohydrates, waiting 15 minutes, and checking your blood sugar again. If your blood sugar remains below 70 mg/dL, repeat the steps until your blood sugar is above that level.

The 15 grams of carbohydrates can come in the form of glucose tablets or gel, fruit juice or soda, a tablespoon of sugar or honey, or two tablespoons of raisins.  

Where Can the Paleness Be Seen?

Aside from the face, paleness may be seen inside the eyelids, on the palms of your hands, on fingernails, on your tongue, and inside your mouth.

Anemia

Anemia is a condition that develops when the body does not have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen where it needs to go. There are many causes of anemia:

Aside from pale skin, the symptoms of anemia can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations

The treatment for anemia depends on the cause. If a lack of nutrients is to blame, your doctor will treat the deficiency through oral or intravenous infusion of the missing nutrient. In some serious cases, a blood transfusion may be needed to restore healthy red blood cells in the body.

For anemia caused by a condition, it’s likely that the disorder needs to be treated. In the event that internal bleeding is the cause, surgery may be required to repair the injury that is causing the bleeding.  

Anemia Can Be a Sign of Cancer

If you’re anemic, watch out for other signs of cancer, such as blood loss or unexplained lumps or growths. If you have a family history of cancer or other risk factors, talk to your doctor. The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the sooner it can be treated and the better the prognosis.

Bloodstream Infection

Bloodstream infection can be caused by a virus, bacterium, or fungus in the bloodstream. Symptoms of a bloodstream infection can include:

If a person with a bloodstream infection requires resuscitation, that should always be done first. Removing the source of the infection should also be done if it’s possible. Antibiotic medication will be given, even before the cause is determined, since many bloodstream infections are caused by bacteria.

Frostbite

Frostbite is an injury that occurs when a person’s skin is exposed to cold temperatures for a long period of time. It occurs because the tissues underneath the skin and the top layer of the skin become frozen. It is most commonly found in the feet, hands, ears, and nose.

The symptoms of frostbite will vary depending on how severe it is. In the early stages, symptoms will include paleness, throbbing and aching in the affected area, and a pins and needles sensation. If the tissue damage is more severe, the area will become hard and frozen.

Once the affected area has thawed, the skin will become blistered and red. The most severe form of frostbite will cause the skin to turn white, blue, or blotchy. Damage could extend to the bone in this case, and blisters full of blood will become black and scabbed.

To treat frostbite, the affected area will first be warmed in a bath of water mixed with an antiseptic solution at 38 degrees Celsius. If blisters form, they will likely be drained of any fluid and left alone to heal. The tissue that is affected may also be treated with topical aloe vera ointment. It will then be covered with a bandage.

Once the extremity is bandaged, it will likely be put into a splint and elevated. If the person is in pain, they will be given nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Shock

Shock occurs when the tissues in your body are deprived of oxygen, blood, and nutrients. When this happens, the body reacts quickly to keep itself alive.

A person can experience several types of shock. Cardiogenic shock occurs when there is a decrease in blood flow in the body, typically caused by damage to the heart. Hemorrhagic shock occurs when oxygen cannot be delivered throughout the body because fluid cannot be passed throughout the body normally.

Other types of shock include:

  • Hypovolemic shock: This occurs when there is not enough blood volume in the body. It can cause internal bleeding.
  • Neurogenic shock: This can happen when someone’s spine becomes injured, damaging the nerves that control the width of blood vessels. The blood vessels below the injury relax and open too much, causing a significant drop in blood pressure.
  • Septic shock: This occurs when an infection causes dilated (expanded) blood vessels and a drop in blood pressure.
  • Anaphylactic shock: When a person has a severe allergic reaction, their blood vessels dilate, causing low blood pressure.
  • Obstructive shock: Obstructive shock causes a stop in blood flow.
  • Endocrine shock: If someone is suffering from a critical illness, it may lead to damage to the heart functions and a drop in blood pressure that could be life threatening.

When a person goes into shock, they will experience many symptoms along with pale skin, including:

  • Changes in pulse
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Shallow and rapid breathing
  • Lightheadedness
  • Clammy skin that feels cool
  • Dilated pupils
  • Pain in the chest
  • Nausea
  • Confusion and anxiety
  • Low blood sugar
  • Extreme thirst
  • A decrease in urination
  • Unconsciousness

Since shock is a life-threatening condition, call 911 at the first signs of the condition. Once in the hospital, shock will be treated depending on the cause. Some treatments include heart surgery, blood transfusions, or antibiotics.

If you’re with someone experiencing shock, the first thing you should do is call 911. While waiting for medical help to arrive, if the person is not breathing or lacks a heartbeat, perform CPR.

Blood Pressure Changes

Changes in blood pressure can lead to pale skin. Blood pressure is the rate of force at which your heart is pumping blood throughout your circulatory system. Changes in blood pressure can happen throughout the day without causing problems. However, when blood pressure rises or drops significantly, this can indicate a health issue.

Many things can cause changes in blood pressure, including:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Medications
  • Physical activity
  • Certain types of foods such as fermented foods and caffeinated beverages
  • Adrenal insufficiency

When blood pressure changes, it can either go too high or too low. High blood pressure is known as hypertension, whereas low blood pressure is known as hypotension.

In most cases, symptoms of high blood pressure are nonexistent. However, those with low blood pressure will often present with symptoms such as:

  • Pale skin
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Fainting
  • Dehydration and extreme thirst
  • Blurry vision
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Fatigue
  • Shallow and quick breathing

In the event that blood pressure spikes to high levels, treatment will involve medications and lifestyle changes, including eating healthy, avoiding salty foods, managing stress, and exercising more.

For low blood pressure, treatment involves eating more salt and drinking more water, reducing or changing medications that may be causing a drop in blood pressure, and starting a new medication that can help to manage the drops.

Vitamin Deficiency

A vitamin deficiency occurs when the body doesn’t get enough of one or more vitamins or minerals that it needs because of a poor diet or an absorption issue. When this occurs, it can lead to health issues, such as digestion problems, skin diseases, bone health issues, and degenerative neurological disorders such as dementia.

Aside from pale skin, malnutrition can cause other symptoms, such as:

  • Easy bruising
  • Rashes
  • Skin pigmentation changes
  • Thin hair
  • Achy joints
  • Soft bones
  • Gums that are easy to bleed
  • Night blindness
  • Swollen, cracked, or shriveled tongue
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Depression and anxiety

Treatment for malnutrition can be done easily if a person changes their diet. In those who cannot eat or are not digesting their food properly, nutrients may need to be given through an IV or tube into the gastrointestinal tract. In some cases, long-term tube feeding may be recommended and the tube will be put directly into the stomach or small intestine and kept there.

Medical Emergencies

In some cases, the sudden onset of pale skin can be a medical emergency. If the paleness presents with other symptoms such as fainting, fever, vomiting blood, rectal bleeding, or abdominal pain, you should call your doctor or 911 right away.  

If you have pale skin accompanied by shortness of breath, pain or a feeling of coldness in any of your limbs, or chest pain, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes sudden paleness?

When your skin becomes pale suddenly, it is due to a lack of adequate blood supply or because there are a lower number of red blood cells. Paleness can often be confused with pigment loss, but the two are not one and the same. Paleness does not have any connection to melanin, the pigment that gives our skin color.

What is pale skin a sign of?

Pale skin can be a sign of many different health conditions. Low blood pressure, anemia, and some types of cancer can all lead to pale skin.

Why do I look so pale and tired?

Being pale and tired could be a sign that you have fatigue. The paleness and tiredness can occur because the body is low on hemoglobin or red blood cells. Without enough red blood cells or hemoglobin, oxygen does not travel through the body as easily and can lead to both paleness and tiredness.

Summary

Pale skin refers to the sudden loss of color from your skin. Unlike natural paleness, pale skin is usually a result of a health condition, from anemia to low blood pressure to frostbite. Some causes are not serious, while others require immediate medical attention. If you have pale skin and other concerning symptoms, see your doctor right away for diagnosis.

A Word From Verywell 

Pale skin isn’t always something to worry about, but it can sometimes be the sign of a medical condition. If you are experiencing pale skin along with other symptoms, it’s important to go to your doctor to have them examine you and find out the cause of your pale skin. This could help you avoid any serious health consequences in the long run.

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17 Sources
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