Blue lips: When to seek help, causes, and other symptoms (2022)

Cyanosis is the medical term for discoloration to the lips, skin, tongue, or other mucous membranes. It occurs when the body does not receive enough oxygenated blood. Although people’s lips can change color when exposed to cold temperatures, cyanosis often requires medical intervention.

In white people, cyanosis causes the lips and skin to turn blue. In Black people, cyanosis may cause the lips and skin to become gray or whitish but might become more evident in the gums, and around the eyes and nails.

Cyanosis may indicate poor blood flow to other areas of the body.

According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), if a person has blue or gray lips, they need to seek emergency medical help.

If a person is experiencing cyanosis in the fingers or toes, they should see a doctor.

In this article, we cover some of the causes of cyanosis and when to seek help.

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People must call 911 if their lips or someone else’s lips change color, and the following symptoms occur:

  • lips, face, tongue, or skin suddenly turn blue or gray
  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), a person with COPD may experience flare-ups when their symptoms worsen.

A person may experience a flare after exposure to a trigger, such as allergens or air pollution, or if they have a chest infection.

Sometimes COPD flare-ups may cause cyanosis, chest pain, and confusion.

These are serious symptoms and require emergency medical attention. People with COPD flare-ups should not attempt to drive to the emergency room.

Treatment

According to the Canadian Lung Association, when a person experiences a flare, they must put their individual action plan into use.

This can include taking antibiotics or corticosteroid medications.

Treating a flare-up can reduce the chances of becoming severely ill.

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A severe asthma attack is another medical emergency.

Along with very pale or blue lips, fingers, or fingernails, people experiencing a severe asthma attack may also have accompanying symptoms.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, symptoms may include:

  • fast breathing with chest retractions
  • rapid movement of nostrils
  • deep and rapid movement of the ribs and stomach
  • expanded chest that does not deflate upon exhalation
  • infants who cannot respond or recognize their parents

People can prevent asthma attacks by knowing and avoiding their triggers.

Each person may have a different trigger, such as:

  • pollen
  • cats
  • cigarette smoke
  • fumes from household cleaners
  • cold and flu viruses

Treatment

A person should keep their rescue inhaler close to them so they can use it when they recognize the onset of an asthma attack.

When breathing becomes difficult, they can use the inhaler to ensure effective breathing.

Specialists will also create a customized rescue plan for asthma attacks.

According to the ALA, people experiencing ARDS have severe lung injury, usually due to trauma or infections.

ARDS typically occurs in people who are already in the hospital, but it can still happen outside a hospital setting. It is a medical emergency.

When a person has ARDS, fluid enters the lungs, making it difficult for people to breathe and get oxygen into their bloodstream.

With a lack of oxygen, the skin and lips may turn blue or white. This is a warning sign to call 911.

According to the ALA, other symptoms that may suggest ARDS include:

  • distressed breathing
  • rapid heart rate
  • blue or pale fingernails

In the hospital, the doctors will take an X-ray to evaluate the amount of fluid in the lungs and check the blood oxygen levels.

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Treatment

According to the ALA, treatment for ARDS includes ventilator support to ensure the person is getting enough oxygen. Ventilators also create airspaces that have closed to help the person breathe more easily.

Sometimes doctors need to place the person on their stomach, which helps deliver more oxygen into the blood.

Sedatives and medications to prevent movement help relieve anxiety and agitation.

Some medications that stop muscle movements are necessary to help place the person on the ventilator.

Doctors may also prescribe diuretic medications to help reduce fluid in the lungs.

People sometimes call pneumothorax a collapsed lung.

It happens when air that enters the space between the lung and chest wall pushes against the outside of the lung, causing it to collapse.

There are different types of pneumothorax:

  • Primary spontaneous: This type occurs when a person has no known history of pulmonary disease.
  • Secondary spontaneous: This type typically occurs due to pulmonary diseases, such as COPD, asthma, and cystic fibrosis.
  • Traumatic: This occurs due to an injury that allows air to leak into the cavity that surrounds the lungs.

Some people may not experience any symptoms. However, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, symptoms can include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • gray or blue lips and skin
  • tight chest
  • a rapid heart rate
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • acute sudden chest pain localized at the area of pneumothorax

A pneumothorax is a medical emergency. Doctors will notice decreasing arterial oxygen and will immediately prescribe oxygen therapy. Some people may only need observation as the pressure stabilizes.

In other situations, people may require aspiration, which involves inserting a catheter into the pleural cavity to evacuate the air in the cavity.

An article in BMJ Clinical Evidence states that although death from pneumothorax is rare, it is a medical emergency. Anyone who thinks that they are experiencing a pneumothorax must go to the emergency room.

Treatment

Johns Hopkins Medicine state that although pneumothorax can resolve by itself, healthcare professionals may have to remove the air from the lung.

Healthcare professionals will place a chest tube between the ribs to drain the air and allow the lung to re-expand.

Sometimes, a person may need surgery.

Seizures

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According to an earlier article in Epilepsy Currents, cyanosis is common in people with tonic-clonic seizures and prolonged tonic seizures.

During the seizure, the person may experience apnea, where they temporarily stop breathing. This limits oxygen circulation.

According to a 2020 article, a person experiencing a tonic-clonic seizure may experience impaired awareness or loss of consciousness.

If someone notices a person is having a seizure, they should try to roll them onto their side to decrease the risk of suffocation and aspiration.

Although most tonic-clonic seizures resolve spontaneously, a person who experiences one should go to the emergency room. Some people may require anti-seizure medication to prevent seizures.

Sometimes dermatologists can tell if a person has a heart condition by the blue or purple hue to the skin.

The American Academy of Dermatology state that changes to skin or lip color can indicate a blockage in a blood vessel. Without treatment, a lack of blood and oxygen supply can cause the skin and underlying tissues to die.

If other symptoms accompany cyanosis, such as pain or numbness in the area, people should speak with a doctor.

If a person notices that an infant’s lips are blue or gray, they should contact a healthcare professional for advice.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

RSV is a virus that causes symptoms that resemble the common cold. Infants are a high-risk group, and 5–20% require hospitalization.

In mild cases, an infant may experience congestion, a fever, a cough, a runny nose, and a sore throat. The symptoms typically clear within a few days, according to the ALA.

However, If a parent or caregiver notices a wheezing or barking cough, this can indicate that RSV is more severe.

Other symptoms of severe RSV include short, shallow, rapid breaths, which causes caving of the chest between the ribs.

The infant’s nostrils may also flare. Blue or gray lips, mouth, and fingernails may also appear because of a lack of oxygen.

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Treatment

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if an infant experiences severe RSV, they need to stay in the hospital for a few days.

In really severe cases, they may require oxygen or help to breathe with mechanical ventilation.

Newborn respiratory distress syndrome (NRDS)

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, respiratory distress syndrome often occurs in newborns or premature babies because their lungs may not have enough surfactant to keep the lungs expanded.

Surfactant is a foamy substance that helps keep the lungs fully expanded so that newborns can breathe air when they are born.

Without enough surfactant, the baby may have difficulty breathing and delivering oxygen throughout the body.

A lack of oxygen may turn their lips blue or gray.

Over time, NRDS may develop into bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which is another breathing disorder. Some babies may recover from RDS and never get bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

Treatment

To treat NRDS, doctors may prescribe surfactant replacement therapy, breathing support from a ventilator, or nasal continuous positive airway pressure. Treatment typically occurs in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Diagnosis

To diagnose cyanosis, doctors will investigate the person’s medical records, which may indicate chronic lung disease.

Since cyanosis can occur with cardiovascular or pulmonary conditions, doctors must conduct thorough examinations.

Controlling the underlying condition is necessary to prevent blue or gray lips in the future.

Blue or gray lips and skin indicate a lack of blood flow or a lack of oxygen circulating in the blood. Sometimes lips that change color may be a warning sign of a medical emergency, such as a severe asthma attack or COPD flare-up.

If blue or gray lips appear suddenly, a person may require emergency medical attention, especially if they have other warning signs, such as shortness of breath.

If lips change color gradually, the person should monitor their symptoms and make an appointment with a doctor.

FAQs

Blue lips: When to seek help, causes, and other symptoms? ›

Sudden blue lips are a serious symptom that may indicate a serious or life threatening underlying condition. If you or someone you are with has blue lips with other serious symptoms — such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, fatigue, fainting, or a change in the level of consciousness — seek immediate medical care.

When should I be worried about blue lips? ›

Blue skin and lips is usually caused by low blood oxygen levels or poor circulation. It can be a sign of a serious problem. Call 999 or go to your nearest emergency department immediately if you notice an adult or child suddenly turning blue.

What does blue lips mean in adults? ›

Blue or gray lips and skin indicate a lack of blood flow or a lack of oxygen circulating in the blood. Sometimes lips that change color may be a warning sign of a medical emergency, such as a severe asthma attack or COPD flare-up.

What does having blue lips mean? ›

Causes of blue skin or lips (cyanosis)

Cyanosis can mean there's not enough oxygen in your blood, or you have poor blood circulation. It can be caused by a serious problem with the: lungs, like asthma or pneumonia. airways like choking or croup.

Can high blood pressure cause blue lips? ›

Less-common causes of blue lips include polycythemia vera (a bone marrow disorder that causes the production of excess red blood cells) and cor pulmonale (a decrease in the function of the right side of the heart caused by long-term high blood pressure).

Can your lips turn blue from dehydration? ›

You could be severely dehydrated if, in addition to any of these symptoms, you become confused or disorientated, are difficult to rouse, your lips turn blue or your breathing or pulse becomes rapid. Severe dehydration is dangerous and you will need urgent medical treatment.

What drugs turn your lips blue? ›

Consultant Dr Eleanor Anderson said chemicals added to increase the volume of cocaine can induce the condition. Symptoms include blue lips and fatigue. Sufferers can also experience headaches, abnormal heart rates, breathlessness, fatigue, exercise intolerance and dizziness.

Does cyanosis go away? ›

How is cyanosis treated? Most cyanosis in children is a result of “acrocyanosis” and does not need treatment. If there is a primary lung or heart issue, cyanosis will go away when the child has the underlying condition treated either medically or surgically.

How do you fix cyanosis? ›

Treatment of cyanosis
  1. Warming of the affected areas. ...
  2. Surgery as a treatment for cyanosis. ...
  3. Oxygenation as a treatment for cyanosis. ...
  4. Intravenous fluids. ...
  5. Drugs as a treatment for cyanosis. ...
  6. Immunizations for children with cyanosis. ...
  7. Injections for babies with cyanosis. ...
  8. Glucose administration.

What does cyanosis look like? ›

Cyanosis is characterized by bluish discoloration of skin and mucous membranes. Cyanosis is usually a sign of an underlying condition rather than being a disease in itself. The most common symptoms of the condition are bluish discoloration of the lips, fingers, and toes.

What causes lip discoloration? ›

Lip discoloration can occur as a result of a fungal infection, iron deficiency anemia, sun exposure, or an allergic reaction. Treatments for lip discoloration vary depending on the cause. People who notice new or unusual spots on their lips may want to contact their doctor.

What are the causes of cyanosis? ›

Cyanosis is a bluish color in the skin, lips, and nail beds caused by a shortage of oxygen in the blood. Cyanosis occurs because blood with low levels of oxygen turns blue or purple. This low-oxygen blood causes a blue-purple tint to the skin.

Do heart problems cause blue lips? ›

Some heart defects cause major problems right after birth. The main symptom of cyanosis is a bluish color of the lips, fingers, and toes that is caused by the low oxygen content in the blood. It may occur while the child is resting or only when the child is active. Some children have breathing problems (dyspnea).

Do heart murmurs cause blue lips? ›

Harmless (innocent) heart murmurs usually don't cause any other symptoms. Symptoms of worrisome heart murmurs depend on the cause. Heart murmur symptoms may include: Blue or gray fingernails or lips.

How do you improve circulation? ›

What You Can Do To Boost Your Circulation
  1. Increase cardiovascular exercise. ...
  2. If you smoke, quit. ...
  3. Drink black or green tea. ...
  4. If you are anemic, take iron supplements or eat iron-rich food. ...
  5. Dry brush your body. ...
  6. Decrease stress. ...
  7. Include more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. ...
  8. Wear compression socks and elevate your legs.
Oct 27, 2020

Does cyanosis go away? ›

How is cyanosis treated? Most cyanosis in children is a result of “acrocyanosis” and does not need treatment. If there is a primary lung or heart issue, cyanosis will go away when the child has the underlying condition treated either medically or surgically.

What causes lip discoloration? ›

Lip discoloration can occur as a result of a fungal infection, iron deficiency anemia, sun exposure, or an allergic reaction. Treatments for lip discoloration vary depending on the cause. People who notice new or unusual spots on their lips may want to contact their doctor.

How do you fix cyanosis? ›

Treatment of cyanosis
  1. Warming of the affected areas. ...
  2. Surgery as a treatment for cyanosis. ...
  3. Oxygenation as a treatment for cyanosis. ...
  4. Intravenous fluids. ...
  5. Drugs as a treatment for cyanosis. ...
  6. Immunizations for children with cyanosis. ...
  7. Injections for babies with cyanosis. ...
  8. Glucose administration.

Can your lips turn blue from being cold? ›

Blue lips are generally due to either a lack of oxygen in the blood or extremely cold temperatures. When the skin becomes a bluish color, the symptom is called cyanosis. Blue lips can result from a lack of oxygen in the blood.

Videos

1. 28 SIGNS YOUR BODY IS CRYING FOR HELP
(5-Minute Crafts)
2. Cyanosis / Blue baby ( Cardiovascular disorders) | Chapter Circulation video 15
(pOwer Of knOwledge)
3. 31 Tongue Signs Your Body is Asking for Help (With Solutions)
(Fit Tuber)
4. How to help if someone has a tonic clonic seizure - Epilepsy Action Employer Toolkit
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5. Dyspnea, or shortness of breath: Causes and treatment
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6. Experts say seek immediate medical attention if you have this COVID symptom
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