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Cyanosis is a bluish discoloration in the skin, nails, and mucous membranes. This happens when blood doesn’t carry as much oxygen as it should. It can be caused by heart or lung diseases or alterations in the way the blood carries oxygen, such as in methemoglobinemia and sulfhemoglobinemia. In these cases, the cyanosis is usually apparent all over the body. If there is decreased blood circulation to just one area of the body, local cyanosis may occur. This occurs, for example, if there is decreased circulation to an arm or a leg.
Cyanosis is a sign that your blood is not carrying the oxygen that your body needs. During pregnancy, this lack of oxygen can have disastrous effects for the mother and newborn.
What causes cyanosis?
Red blood cells deliver oxygen to all of the body’s tissues and organs. Most red blood cells carry their full capacity of oxygen. When they do, blood is dark red and skin and mucous membranes are pinkish or red. When red blood cells carry less than a full load of oxygen, the blood is a bluish-red and skin and mucous membranes look blue. The darker your skin is, the harder cyanosis is to see on your skin: it is more obvious on the lips, tongue, and inside of the mouth.
Cyanosis is different than anemia. In anemia, there simply aren’t enough healthy red blood cells available. In cases of cyanosis, the red blood cells are available, but they aren’t carrying enough oxygen.
Cyanosis that effects the entire body may be due to:
- A blood clot in the arteries of the lungs
- Drowning or near-drowning
- High altitude
- Bronchiolitis (a lung infection)
- Long-term lung disease such as asthma or COPD
- Severe pneumonia
- Choking or having something stuck in your airway
- Congenital heart defects
- Heart failure
- Cardiac arrest
- Drug overdose
- Toxins such as cyanide
- Exposure to extreme cold
- Extremely low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Low volume of blood circulating in your body (hypovolemia)
Cyanosis that only occurs in one area of the body may be caused by:
- A blood clot only blocking flow to one limb or body part
- Reynaud phenomenon (a condition in which cold temperatures or strong emotions cause blood vessels to constrict and block blood flow to fingers, toes, ears, and nose)
- Clothing or jewelry that is too tight
- Slow blood flow through your veins (venous insufficiency)
What other symptoms are related to cyanosis?
Depending on the cause of the cyanosis, it may be accompanied by shortness of breath.
Call emergency medical help immediately if you notice cyanosis on yourself or someone else or have the following symptoms:
- You cannot catch a deep breath or your breathing is hard and fast
- You need to lean forward to breathe
- You have chest pain
- You are having more or worse headaches than normal
- You feel sleepy or confused
- You cough up dark mucous
- You are sweating profusely
Is cyanosis dangerous?
Cyanosis during pregnancy means that your blood is not delivering oxygen properly and, without a sufficient oxygen supply, your life may be in danger. A lack of oxygen can lead to heart failure, respiratory failure, or death.
Treatment for cyanosis
Since cyanosis is actually a symptom of many different conditions, treating cyanosis depends on its cause. If it is caused by a heart or lung problem, your doctor may prescribe medicines or other treatments to correct the underlying disorder. Oxygen therapy may also be needed to restore normal levels of oxygen to the blood.
How to prevent cyanosis
To avoid cyanosis caused by exposure to extreme temperatures or Reynaud phenomenon, dress warmly if you must be exposed to cold. Additionally, if the symptoms become extreme or interfere with your daily activities, medications that help relax the blood vessels may be considered. You may also need to avoid caffeine, nicotine, and medications that cause blood vessels to constrict, such as beta-blockers, migraine drugs, and cold and allergy medicines that contain pseudoephedrine. Remember, do not start or stop any medication without talking to your doctor or pharmacist.
If you have a heart or lung disease (or any other condition) that increases your risk for cyanosis, talk to your doctor as soon as you get pregnant to learn how to keep you and your baby healthy.