Skin color is largely determined by genes, but factors such as sun exposure and health status also affect the skin’s visual appearance. In fact, the skin provides important clues to a person’s overall health. Numerous health conditions can change the color, texture or appearance of skin, but often do so gradually. When skin discoloration occurs suddenly, it's important to take notice, as some of the reasons for these color changes are quite serious.
The trigger for sudden skin redness can be as simple as facial flushing, or blushing, due to embarrassment or anger. Skin inflammation, infection or injury also lead to redness, as these situations increase blood flow to the skin. So common reasons for sudden redness include fever, rash, allergy, dermatitis, medication side effects, exposure to extreme temperatures or sun exposure. Certain medical conditions can also cause this color change. Examples include rosacea, a skin disease which can cause facial flushing, or lupus, which can cause a malar or butterfly rash that can occur suddenly, particularly after sun exposure.
Blue or Gray Hues
Cyanosis is a bluish-gray tint to the skin caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood. Since oxygen-poor blood is bluish-red in color, any situation or condition that deprives the airways or blood or vital oxygen can cause this skin discoloration, and impact either localized areas or the entire body. Sudden cyanosis requires emergency medical attention, since it may occur when breathing is stopped -- as in choking or drowning. Cyanosis may also be a gradual and ongoing consequence of poor heart or lung function. Less urgent causes of bluish skin include exposure to cold temperatures, or Raynaud syndrome, which causes poor blood flow to the hands, leading to pale, bluish and sometimes red fingers. Another uncommon cause of bluish-gray skin is a potentially permanent consequence of taking silver supplements, including colloidal silver, which is considered unsafe to take by mouth, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
While some people naturally have very white skin, a sudden paleness is called pallor and can be related to dehydration, nausea or stomach upset, low blood sugar or a fainting or near-fainting episode. Pallor is concerning, particularly when it is also noticed in the lips, mouth, tongue, palms of the hands and eyes, since change in color is linked to a decreased blood supply to the skin, or a decrease in the number of red blood cells -- or anemia. Pallor is also related to poor blood flow and can be a sign of severe illness.
Yellow or Orange Hues
Jaundice, commonly linked to liver, gallbladder or pancreatic disease, is the most common cause of yellow skin, and a condition that requires urgent medical attention. The yellow hue comes from bilirubin -- a byproduct of old red blood cells -- which builds up in the blood and alters the color of the skin, mucous membranes and eyes. Sometimes yellow or orange skin may be caused a condition called carotenemia, or excess blood levels of carotene, a skin pigment which can impart a yellow or orange tone to the skin color -- particularly in the palms of the hands. Carotenemia may be caused by excessive consumption of certain foods high in beta-carotene, including carrots, sweet potatoes or spinach, and infrequently stems from certain medical conditions, such as liver disease or hypothyroidism.
The skin can provide important clues into your health status, and changes to the color of your skin are important to monitor. While skin redness and even paleness may be linked to minor or self-limiting conditions, see your doctor for unexplained pallor or redness, as well as for any other color change to your skin. If you have color change along with weakness, swelling, difficulty breathing, or if you have signs of cyanosis or jaundice, seek immediate medical attention.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
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