What causes purple skin?

Common causes of purple skin include bleeding, bruising, and broken blood vessels under the skin. A severe lack of oxygen in the blood (cyanosis) results in purple skin.

Injuries may be a cause of bleeding and purple skin. Congenital heart disease, heart failure, cardiogenic shock, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis) may be accompanied by purple skin as the result of a lack of oxygen in the blood. Purple skin can also result from drug overdoses from sedatives or narcotics, such as morphine.

Skin causes of purple skin

Purple skin may be caused by injuries to the skin including:

  • Ecchymosis (a large area of the skin that is bruised)
  • Petechiae (broken blood vessels characterized by small red dots on the skin)
  • Purpura (collection of blood under the skin)

Pulmonary causes of purple skin

Purple skin may be caused by pulmonary disorders including:

  • Asthma attack that results in airway constriction
  • Bronchiolitis (viral infection of the bronchioles)
  • Choking on a foreign object
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis)
  • Croup (viral illness)
  • Epiglottitis (life-threatening inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, a tissue flap between the tongue and windpipe)
  • Pneumonia
  • Pulmonary embolism associated with deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in the leg that can break loose from the leg and cause a pulmonary embolism in the lung, a heart attack, or stroke)

Cardiac causes of purple skin

Purple skin may be caused by heart conditions including:

  • Cardiogenic shock (shock caused by heart damage and ineffective heart function)
  • Cardiomyopathy (weakened or abnormal heart muscle and function)
  • Congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)
  • Cyanotic heart disease (congenital heart defect characterized by cyanosis)

Other causes of purple skin

Purple skin may have other causes including:

  • Being at high altitude (lower levels of oxygen reduce oxygen in blood)
  • Cancer treatment (radiation therapy and chemotherapy cause ecchymosis)
  • Cold air or water exposure (decreased temperature reduces blood flow to skin)
  • Henoch-Schonlein purpura (type of vasculitis or blood vessel inflammation)
  • Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (low levels of platelets)
  • Medications
  • Near drowning or drowning (breathing stops, lungs may fill with water, and cyanosis develops)
  • Overdose (especially medications, such as sedatives and narcotics)
  • Prolonged seizures (if breathing stops for a significant period of time, cyanosis will develop)

Serious or life-threatening causes of purple skin

In some cases, purple skin may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Cardiogenic shock (shock caused by heart damage and ineffective heart function)
  • Near drowning or drowning (breathing stops, lungs may fill with water, and cyanosis develops)
  • Pulmonary embolism associated with deep vein thrombosis (blood clot in the leg that can break loose from the leg and cause a pulmonary embolism in the lung, a heart attack, or stroke)
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of purple skin

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your purple skin including:

  • When did you first notice purple skin?
  • Have you recently been ill?
  • Is your skin always purple?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of purple skin?

Because purple skin can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage
  • Heart failure
  • Respiratory failure and respiratory arrest

References:

Cyanotic heart disease. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001104.htm. Accessed May 26, 2011.

Bleeding into the skin. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003235.htm. Accessed May 26, 2011.

Skin discoloration - bluish. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003215.htm. Accessed May 26, 2011.

INTRODUCTION

What is purple skin?

Purple skin is a common symptom of injury and of heart and lung disorders. Purple skin results from bleeding and bruising, broken blood vessels, and low levels of blood oxygen. Purple skin may occur in conditions affecting the skin itself or along with a more generalized disorder resulting from conditions such as drowning or chronic heart and lung diseases.... Read more about purple skinintroduction

SYMPTOMS

What other symptoms might occur with purple skin?

Purple skin may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the skin may also involve other body systems.... Read more about purple skinsymptoms

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Injuries and Wounds, Skin, Hair and Nails


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