An Overview of Peripheral Cyanosis

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Peripheral cyanosis is a condition in which the extremities develop a distinctive bluish discoloration because they are not receiving enough oxygen-rich blood. This condition most often shows up in the hands, feet, fingers, and/or toes.

Reduced blood circulation to the affected extremities is almost always to blame. It starves the tissues of oxygen-rich blood. Oxygen-poor blood is dark red and reflects a bluish-green color through the skin.

Peripheral cyanosis is rarely serious. But if your hands and feet don’t return to their usual color and blood flow doesn't normalize after warming and massaging, you may have an underlying condition. In this case, you should seek medical attention.

This article outlines the symptoms and causes of peripheral cyanosis. It also explains how it is diagnosed and treated.

peripheral cyanosis symptoms

Verywell / Jessica Olah

Peripheral Cyanosis Symptoms

Peripheral cyanosis can affect anyone, regardless of age.

Adults and children with peripheral cyanosis may experience the following symptoms:

  • Bluish areas that feel cold to the touch
  • Fingertips, toes, palms of the hands and/or feet that appear blue-green
  • Visible return to normal color after the body part is warmed

Peripheral cyanosis is often associated with being cold, but it is possible to have peripheral cyanosis and be warm.

Peripheral cyanosis is sometimes hard to diagnose in newborns because of other skin discoloration issues, including jaundice.

Peripheral Cyanosis Escalation

Peripheral cyanosis can become a life-threatening emergency. If you experience blue discoloration with the following symptoms, seek immediate medical attention by calling 911 or going to the nearest emergency room:

  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Pain or numbness in the arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers, or toes
  • Shortness of breath and/or other breathing issues
  • White or pale appearance in the arms, legs, hands, feet, fingers, or toes (a sign of obstructed blood flow)

Causes

Most often, the condition is caused by low levels of oxygen in the blood, clinically known as hypoxia. This occurs when not enough oxygen travels from the lungs to the blood.

Blood oxygen levels typically must fall below 80% to 85% for the skin to take on the bluish tint that characterizes cyanosis.

Other common causes for peripheral cyanosis may include: 

  • Arterial insufficiency: Sluggishness/stoppage of blood flow to the arteries
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): A blood clot in a vein deep inside the body
  • Heart failure, which affects the heart’s ability to pump enough blood to the body
  • Hypovolemia: A decrease in blood volume throughout the body
  • Lymphedema, which causes dysfunction in the lymphatic system, resulting in swelling in the arms or legs and fluid retention in the fingers or toes
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon, which causes restricted blood flow to the fingers, toes, ears, and/or nose in response to cold or stress
  • Severe hypotension: Low blood pressure
  • Septic shock, a life-threatening situation in which a body-wide infection causes extremely low blood pressure
  • Venous insufficiency: When valves in the blood vessels of the legs don't work as they should, causing blood to pool

Tight clothing or jewelry can also cause peripheral cyanosis.

Cyanosis in newborns may be related to heart, nerve, lung, or cell function problems.

Recap

Low levels of oxygen in the blood cause peripheral cyanosis. The reasons behind this can vary widely, from severe low blood pressure to blood clots to heart failure.

Diagnosis

Bluish skin usually isn't a serious condition. However, any time skin color does not return to normal after warming and massaging, it's important to learn the cause.

A doctor should be able to identify the underlying cause after a physical examination, listening to the heart and lungs, and ordering blood work.

A computerized tomography (CT) scan and X-ray can determine if there are abnormalities in the lungs and heart.

A pulse oximeter, which measures the oxygen concentration in the blood, is a helpful tool that is used. Unfortunately, it cannot help determine the metabolism of oxygen or the amount of oxygen a person is using.

Peripheral cyanosis can also be diagnosed using an arterial blood gas test. This test measures acidity, carbon dioxide, and oxygen levels in the blood.

Treatment

Treatment starts by identifying and correcting the underlying reasons for the constricted blood flow. Timely and appropriate treatment can help reduce any potential complications. 

Medications for treating peripheral cyanosis relax the blood vessels and may include antidepressants, anti-hypertension medications, or drugs typically used for erectile dysfunction.

Medications that restrict blood flow—including beta blockers, birth control pills, and drugs containing pseudoephedrine (cold and allergy medications)—should be avoided in those experiencing bluish skin.

It's also a good idea to limit caffeine consumption and quit smoking. Both are known to constrict blood vessels and slow blood flow.  

Cyanosis in babies tends to go away when the underlying condition is managed. Cases of cyanosis with no known source can be treated with supplemental oxygen. Up to 4.3% of newborns require oxygen treatment for the condition.

Summary

The medical term for the hands, feet, fingers, and/or toes turning blue is peripheral cyanosis.

People of any age can develop this temporary condition, which usually disappears after the affected area is warmed or massaged. If it doesn't, there may be an underlying issue that needs diagnosis and treatment.

Certain symptoms signal that peripheral cyanosis might be life-threatening, including chest pain, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Call 911 or seek immediate medical treatment if this happens to you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What's the difference between peripheral cyanosis and central cyanosis?

    Both conditions are a sign of hypoxia—low levels of oxygen in the blood. Peripheral cyanosis affects the extremities, especially the fingers and toes. Central cyanosis shows up as bluish discoloration of the entire body, especially in mucus membranes such as the lips.

  • Can massage make peripheral cyanosis go away?

    Yes. If the condition is caused by extreme cold or Raynaud's phenomenon, massaging and warming the affected body parts can stimulate the flow of oxygenated blood and help them return to a normal color.

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6 Sources
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