The 3 Skin Signs for Evaluating Patients

Changes in skin color, moisture, and temperature can signal certain diseases. In some situations, the skin is the most obvious sign of a medical issue. If you notice changes in your own skin, you should see your healthcare provider about it.

Female doctor checking patient's neck
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Skin Color

Skin color changes are noticeable if you know what the skin looked like before an illness started. So you are more likely to notice color changes in your own skin, or in someone who you see frequently.

Some skin color changes associated with illness:

  • Purple or bluish skin: This can be is a sign of cyanosis. This typically indicates low blood oxygen. If this is accompanied by dyspnea (shortness of breath) or bradypnea (slow respiration), it can be a sign of hypoxia (lack of oxygen).
  • Pale skin: This can be a sign of anemia (low blood cells), dehydration, or shock. It means the body either doesn't have enough red blood cells or is not allowing blood to flow all the way to the skin. To conserve it, the body will redirect blood from the surface to the core.
  • Jaundice: Yellow discoloration of the skin is a sign of acute or chronic liver disease.
  • Flushed skin: This can indicate too much blood flow to the surface of the skin. Heat overexposure and fever can cause the same as the body re-routes the blood to the surface to release heat.

Sometimes the conjunctiva, oral mucosa, and palms look pale as well. Jaundice can be identified in the sclera or the undersurface of the tongue.

Skin Moisture

Normal skin is supple and non-scaly. Overhydrated skin can look swollen, wrinkly, or whitish in color. Overly dry skin can appear scaly or feel saggy to the touch.

When your skin moisture is abnormal, it can cause:

  • Extremely dry skin: It can have poor turgor (elasticity). The skin might not snap back to its original shape. Causes of poor turgor include dehydration, severe diarrhea, diabetes, and heat exhaustion.
  • Overly sweaty skin: This is described as diaphoresis. Sweating for a workout is fine, but the skin is considered diaphoretic if it is wet for no apparent reason. Another description of diaphoresis is cold sweats. Diabetes, shock, infections, and heart attack can manifest with cold sweats.
  • Whitish, wrinkly skin: This is a sign of skin maceration, typically caused by oversoaked skin. While this will normally resolve once the skin dries out, it may also be a consequence of chronic urinary incontinence.

Skin Temperature

Another skin sign is temperature.

Abnormal temperature can affect the whole body. It can also affect one area, such as your hands, which could be hot or cold when everything else feels normal.

For instance, it is not a good sign if one leg is hot to the touch and the other is not. Even more alarming is if the hot leg is also swollen and red. This could be a sign of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or cellulitis.

Skin temperature can indicate different things:

  • Hot skin: An indicator of excess blood flow to the surface. In some cases, it can indicate a localized infection if the sign is limited to a specific area (such as with MRSA) or indicate fever or a systemic infection if the entire body is hot.
  • Cool skin: A sign of poor circulation. Causes include obesity, heart failure, hypothermia, diabetes, hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), and sepsis.

A Word From Verywell

You might notice persistent, intermittent, or worsening changes in your skin's color, moisture,or temperature Rather than trying to figure out why your skin may be hot, abnormally dry, or discolored, call your healthcare provider and schedule an appointment.

If your gut tells you that something is really wrong, don't delay. Go to your nearest emergency room, particularly if symptoms are developing rapidly.

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