Blue Hands

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What are blue hands?

Blue hands occur when the skin in the hands takes on a bluish tint or color. This generally is 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.

Most commonly, blue hands are caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood. This may happen when you are at high altitude or if you are choking, or may be due to chronic underlying conditions such as lung diseases or chronic heart disease. A lack of oxygen in your blood will lead to a blue coloration of your skin that is most quickly seen in your hands, feet and lips.

Blue hands are a serious symptom that can indicate a severe medical condition and should always be promptly evaluated by a medical professional.

Blue hands are a serious symptom that may be caused by a serious or life-threatening underlying condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you experience blue hands with other serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, fatigue, fainting or a change in level of consciousness or lethargy.

For blue hands not associated with other serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening situation, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with blue hands?

Blue hands are generally due to a lack of oxygen in the blood. Often, this can be caused by an underlying condition that may cause other symptoms.

Cardiac and respiratory symptoms that may occur along with blue hands

Blue hands may accompany other symptoms affecting the heart or respiratory system including:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Leaning forward when sitting to breathe more easily
  • Rapid breathing (tachypnea) or shortness of breath
  • Use of rib cage muscles in an attempt to breathe more easily

Other symptoms that may occur along with blue hands

Blue hands may accompany symptoms related to other body systems. These symptoms include:

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Enlargement of the skin beneath the nail beds (clubbing)
  • Fever
  • Irritability, fussiness, poor feeding, and poor sleeping (in infants and young children)
  • More frequent headaches than you typically have
  • Lethargy
  • Swelling of tissue beneath the nail beds (clubbing)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, blue hands may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:

  • Arm swelling
  • Bluish coloration of the skin, fingernails, or mucous membranes
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lethargy
  • Limpness

What causes blue hands?

Blue hands are usually caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood, although they may also be caused by extreme cold. Decreased oxygen levels in the blood can be due to a variety of underlying conditions.

Cardiovascular causes of blue hands

Blue hands may be caused by cardiovascular disorders including:

  • Blood clot that blocks blood supply

  • Congenital heart defects

  • Methemoglobinemia (overproduction of an abnormal hemoglobin)

  • Other blood disorders that produce abnormal hemoglobin

Respiratory causes of blue hands

Blue hands can also be caused by respiratory disorders including:

Other causes of blue hands

Blue hands can also be caused by other events or disorders including:

  • Drug overdose

  • Exposure to cold

  • High altitude

  • Seizures of long duration

Serious or life-threatening causes of blue hands

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

  • Cardiopulmonary arrest

  • Cardiovascular disease such as congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)

  • Choking

  • Drug overdose

  • Epiglottitis (life-threatening inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, a tissue flap between the tongue and windpipe)

  • Near-drowning incident

  • Pulmonary embolism (blockage of an artery in the lungs due to a blood clot)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of blue hands

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

  • When did you first notice your blue hands?

  • Was the onset of your symptom sudden?

  • Are you having difficulty breathing?

  • Have you been at high altitudes?

  • Have you been exposed to very cold temperatures?

  • Are you having any other symptoms?

  • Are you taking any medications?

  • Do you have any other medical conditions?

What are the potential complications of blue hands?

Blue hands can be an indication of a serious underlying condition or disease. Prompt evaluation from a medical professional can help to identify the source of your blue hands. Once the underlying condition or disease is identified, 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:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 3
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.