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Cyanosis is a blue or purple discolouration of the skin that can occur when there is not enough oxygen in a person's blood or tissues.

What is going on in the body? 
Cyanosis is usually caused by either serious lung or heart disease, or circulation problems. Cases due to circulation problems are more common and often less serious. They usually affect the ends of the arms or legs or both. When cyanosis is due to heart or lung disease, it often affects the face and the arms and legs.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition? 
When someone has cyanosis, the doctor will need more information. Questions may be asked about: Though mild cyanosis may be hard to detect, especially in dark-skinned people, severe cases are usually obvious.

What are the causes and risks of the condition? 
Cyanosis may be caused by a number of conditions, including: What can be done to prevent the condition? 
Prevention depends on the cause. Avoiding cold weather or wearing warm clothes can prevent cases due to cold exposure. A person who avoids smoking can decrease the risk of COPD, pneumonia, lung cancer, artery blockage, and heart disease. Many cases cannot be prevented.

How is the condition diagnosed? 
The doctor can identify cyanosis by examining the person. The cause must then be found. A history and full examination will be needed first.

To help figure out the cause, other tests are often ordered. A blood test called a full blood count, or FBC, can make sure there are a normal number of blood cells. A blood test called an arterial blood gas can measure the level of oxygen in the blood. This can also be done with a device that attaches to the finger called a pulse oximeter. A chest x-ray can show many heart and lung disorders. A test that uses sound waves to look at the heart, called an echocardiogram, may be used. This test can show many of the congenital heart defects that may cause cyanosis and measure how well the heart is pumping blood. Other tests may be needed in some cases.

What are the long-term effects of the condition? 
Long-term effects depend on the cause of the cyanosis. If pneumonia is the cause, antibiotics may cure the infection, and there may be no long-term effects. If the cyanosis is related to an airway blockage, it may improve once the blockage is removed. If the cause is lung cancer, permanent breathing problems or death may result.

What are the risks to others? 
Cyanosis itself is not contagious. But if an infection, such as pneumonia, caused the cyanosis, this infection may be contagious.

What are the treatments for the condition? 
Treatment depends on the cause. Infections are often treated with antibiotics. Avoiding exposure to cold temperatures or warming the body may eliminate cyanosis related to cold temperatures. Oxygen may be needed to relieve shortness of breath. Some conditions, such as heart defects present at birth, may be treated with open heart surgery. Diuretics, or water pills, and other heart medications may be needed if heart failure is the cause. Surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy may be needed for lung cancer.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Side effects depend on the treatments used. All medications have possible side effects. For example, antibiotics can cause stomach upset, allergic reaction, and other effects. Surgery poses a risk of infection, bleeding, or reaction to any analgesia used. Chemotherapy can cause many side effects, such as stomach upset, hair loss, and weakness.

What happens after treatment for the condition? 
In many cases, no further measures are needed after treatment, and the person may be able to return to normal activities. In other cases, the cause is not curable and needs further treatment. In some cases, death may occur, such as from lung cancer.

How is the condition monitored? 
Monitoring also depends on the cause. The level of oxygen in the blood can be measured repeatedly with arterial blood gases until the person improves. Chest pain, difficulty breathing, a feeling of tightness in the throat, confusion, or severe weakness are worrisome. A person should seek immediate medical attention for these symptoms.

Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 18/09/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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