What causes skin color changes?

Your skin may be naturally light or dark depending on how much melanin your skin produces. Changes in melanin production can be due to a variety of conditions and some medications. Skin darkening can be due to changing hormone levels or medications, but it can also occur from exposure to ionizing radiation (such as the sun) or heavy metals. Radiation therapy can also cause an increase in skin pigmentation.

Skin color changes can also be caused by a wide variety of other diseases, disorders and conditions, including genetic disorders, inflammation, malignancy (cancer), organ failure, allergies, and infections.

Infectious causes of skin color changes include rashes and bacterial or fungal infections, as well as viral infections, such as roseola. Autoimmune and inflammatory causes of skin color changes include systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and rosacea. In some cases, skin color changes can be due to very serious or life-threatening illnesses, including melanoma (a type of skin cancer), viral hepatitis, or poor blood flow due to peripheral artery disease (PAD).

Infectious causes of skin color changes

Skin color changes may be caused by a variety of infectious diseases including:

  • Bacterial skin infection, such as impetigo or cellulitis

  • Hepatitis (viral liver infection)

  • Tinea (yeast infection of the skin)
  • Viral infections

Allergic causes of skin color changes

Skin color changes may be caused by an allergic reaction including:

  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Allergic or irritant contact dermatitis, such as poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac
  • Drug reaction

Autoimmune and inflammatory causes of skin color changes

Skin color changes may be caused by autoimmune and inflammatory disorders including:

  • Discoid lupus
  • Erythema multiforme
  • Psoriasis (chronic skin disorder involving overproduction of skin cells)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)
  • Rosacea (chronic inflammatory skin disorder)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
  • Vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels)
  • Vitiligo (possibly an autoimmune disorder that leads to loss of melanin-producing cells)

    Other causes of skin color changes

    Skin color changes can be caused by other underlying conditions or diseases including:

    • Adrenal gland dysfunction, such as Addison’s disease
    • Congenital (hemangioma, Mongolian spot, junctional nevus)
    • Exposure to chemotherapy or radiation therapy
    • Exposure to toxic substances or poisons
    • Heat or high temperatures
    • Melasma (patchy skin darkening that is often seen in pregnant women)
    • Raynaud’s phenomenon (spasms of small blood vessels of the fingers and toes, reducing blood circulation. Raynaud’s phenomenon is secondary to many autoimmune disorders such as lupus)
    • Skin disorders, including rashes, that cause a temporary or permanent color changeSun exposure
    • Tumor growth

      Medications that cause changes in skin color

      Skin color changes can be caused by medications including:

      • Acne preparations
      • Antibiotics

      • Antimalarial drugs

      • Antipsychotic drugs

      • Antiseizure drugs

      • Cancer chemotherapies

      • Medications for cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat)

      • Psoralens, which are used to treat psoriasis

      Life-threatening causes of skin color changes

      In some cases, skin color changes may accompany a serious or life-threatening condition, including an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Life-threatening conditions include:

      • Acute or severe cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, such as respiratory failure, heart attack, acute asthma, and congestive heart failure
      • Allergic purpura (severe allergic reaction)
      • Anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction)
      • Bleeding disorder, such as hemophilia or thrombocytopenic purpura
      • Blood circulation problems, such as peripheral artery disease (PAD)
      • Heavy metal poisoning
      • Hemachromatosis
      • Organ disease or failure of major organs, such as the heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder or kidney
      • Septic shock and other forms of shock

      Questions for diagnosing the cause of skin color changes

      To diagnose the underlying cause of skin color changes, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions about your symptoms. Providing complete answers to these questions will help your provider in diagnosing the cause of your skin color changes:

      • When did the skin color changes first appear and in what area of the skin?

      • What do the skin color changes look like?

      • Have you had simliar symptoms before?

      • Do you have any other symptoms?

      • Have you been in recent contact with any unusual substances or environments, such as exposure to allergens, chemicals or unusual plants, taking new medications or supplements, or traveling to a foreign country?

      • Describe all diseases and conditions in your medical history and list all of the medications, supplements, and herbal drugs you are taking.

      • Do you smoke? How much do you drink?

      What are the potential complications of skin color changes?

      Complications associated with skin color changes can be progressive and vary depending on the underlying cause. Because skin color changes can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in complications and permanent damage. It is important to visit your health care provider when you experience any kind of sudden, persistent or recurrent change in skin color. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, following the treatment plan outlined by your doctor can lower your risk of potential complications of skin color changes and underlying causes including:

      • Growth or spread of skin cancer or infections and gangrene

      • Permanent organ damage, organ failure, and other life-threatening complications

      • Permanent skin discoloration

      • Poor quality of life, or psychological stress due to unsightly skin color changes
      • Progression


      1. Skin Color Changes. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/physicalsideeffects/dealingwithsymptomsatho....
      2. All about rosacea. National Rosacea Society. http://www.rosacea.org/patients/allaboutrosacea.php.
      3. Melanoma. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001853.
      4. How does lupus affect the skin? Lupus Foundation of America. http://www.lupus.org/answers/entry/how-lupus-affects-skin.
      5. Skin – Abnormally Dark or Light. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003242.htm.
      6. Skin Color – Patchy. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003224.htm.
      7. Skin rashes and other changes. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/tools/symptom/545.html
      8. Ferri FF (Ed.) Ferri’s Fast Facts in Dermatology. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier, 2011.
      9. Kahan S, Miller R, Smith EG (Eds.). In A Page Signs & Symptoms, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2009.

      What are skin color changes?

      Skin color changes include any discoloration of the skin in a patchy or uniform pattern. Skin color changes can include red, yellow, purple, blue, brown (bronze or tan), white, green, and black coloring or tint to the skin. Skin can also become lighter or darker than normal.

      Types of skin color changes

      Possible skin color changes include:


      What other symptoms might occur with skin color changes?

      In addition to skin color changes, you may experience other skin symptoms, such as itching, a change in texture, dryness, temperature changes, blisters, or pain. Other symptoms can affect the digestive tract, respiratory system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, or immune system.

      For example, some serious cardiovascular conditions, such as acute congestive h... Read more about skin color changessymptoms

      Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 30, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 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.

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