Purple Skin Explained

Medically Reviewed By Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
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Purple skin is a symptom that typically results from an injury or heart and lung disorders. It is commonly connected with bruising and low levels of blood oxygen. This article defines purple skin. It also discusses other symptoms related to it as well as the causes and treatments related to the symptom.

What is purple skin?

An image of bruised legs
Giada Canu/Stocksy United

Purple skin is a common symptom of injuries and of heart and lung disorders. Purple skin results from bleeding and bruising, broken blood vessels (hemorrhage), and low levels of blood oxygen (hypoxemia).

Purple skin may occur in conditions affecting the skin itself or along with a more generalized disorder resulting from conditions such as chronic heart and lung diseases.

Bruising from skin injuries is a common cause of purple skin. Other common causes include broken blood vessels and the pooling of blood under the skin. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is commonly associated with purple skin, and this is often accompanied by coughing, difficulty breathing, and clubbing of the fingers.

Heart disorders — such as cyanotic heart disease, cardiac arrest, and heart failure — are common causes of purple skin. Rarely, purple skin is a symptom of a serious blood clot that can travel to the lungs and become a pulmonary embolism.

Drug overdoses from sedatives, benzodiazepines, or narcotics can cause purple skin. Obstructions in the airway — including choking, croup, and epiglottitis — are further possible causes of purple skin. Additionally, prolonged seizures, high altitudes, and exposure to cold air or water can all lead to purple skin.

Purple skin can be a symptom of a serious condition. If purple skin is accompanied by difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, a rapid heart rate, chest pain or pressure, or bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails, seek immediate medical care.

If your purple skin is persistent or causes you concern, contact your doctor.

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.

Skin symptoms that may occur along with purple skin

Purple skin may accompany other symptoms affecting the skin, including:

  • dryness
  • easy bleeding or bruising
  • redness, warmth, or swelling

Pulmonary symptoms that may occur along with purple skin

Purple skin may accompany symptoms related to the lungs, including:

  • coughing up blood 
  • coughing up clear, yellow, light brown, or green mucus
  • difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
  • a loose, wet cough that produces thick white or yellow phlegm
  • respiratory arrest
  • wheezing

Cardiac symptoms that may occur along with purple skin

Purple skin may accompany symptoms related to the heart, including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with purple skin

Purple skin may accompany symptoms related to other systems, including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

In some cases, purple skin is a symptom of a life threatening condition that requires immediate evaluation in an emergency setting. 

Seek immediate medical care if you or someone you are with has any of these life threatening symptoms:

  • bluish coloration of the lips, fingernails, or skin
  • chest pain or pressure
  • difficulty breathing or rapid breathing

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 also typically results in purple skin.

On some skin tones, blue skin from conditions such as cyanosis may appear purple.

Purple skin can also result from drug overdoses from sedatives or narcotics, such as morphine.

Skin causes of purple skin

Purple skin may be the result of certain injuries to the skin, including:

  • Ecchymosis: This is a large area of the skin that is bruised.
  • Petechiae: These are broken blood vessels characterized by small red dots on the skin.
  • Purpura: This is a collection of blood under the skin due to internal bleeding, not trauma.

Read about easy bruising here.

Pulmonary causes of purple skin

Purple skin may be the result of certain pulmonary disorders, including:

Cardiac causes of purple skin

Purple skin may be due to some heart conditions, including:

  • Cardiomyopathy: This is a weakened or unusual heart muscle and function.
  • Congestive heart failure: This is the deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood.
  • Cyanotic heart disease: This is a congenital heart defect characterized by cyanosis. On some skin tones, blue skin that is a result of this condition may appear purple.
  • Severe valvular heart disease: This is when valves in your heart are damaged or diseased.

Other causes of purple skin

Purple skin may have other causes, including:

  • high altitudes
  • cancer treatments
  • cold air or water exposure
  • Henoch-Schonlein purpura
  • idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura
  • certain medications
  • methemoglobinemia
  • overdose
  • prolonged seizures
  • sickle cell disease

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 needs immediate evaluation in an emergency setting. These conditions include:

  • Cardiogenic shock: This is shock caused by heart damage and ineffective heart function.
  • Near drowning or drowning: This is when breathing stops, the lungs fill with water, and cyanosis develops.
  • Pulmonary embolism associated with deep vein thrombosis: This is when a blood clot in the leg breaks loose from the leg and causes a pulmonary embolism in the lung, a heart attack, or stroke.
  • Sepsis: This is a life threatening bacterial blood infection.

What are the treatments for purple skin?

Treatments for purple skin will depend on the underlying causes.

For causes of bruising such as ecchymosis, there is not a typical treatment that is needed. However, there are steps you can take at home to reduce swelling and speed up healing. These include:

  • applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel for 30 minutes
  • keeping the bruised area elevated, if possible
  • taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) for any severe pain

Treatments for cardiac causes may include:

  • taking medications
  • undergoing surgery
  • trying oxygen therapy
  • making lifestyle changes, such as eating well and getting regular exercise
  • working on stress reduction

If you are experiencing purple skin discoloration that is not related to bruising resulting from an injury, contact your doctor. They will be able to diagnose the underlying cause and help you form a treatment plan.

Is purple skin preventable?

The causes of purple skin are not always preventable.

However, some ways you can prevent bruising include:

  • using protective equipment when playing sports
  • making sure that walkways are clear of furniture
  • avoiding obstacles that may cause tripping
  • having your blood regularly monitored if you are taking blood thinners
  • ensuring that your diet has adequate vitamin C

You can help prevent heart disease by:

  • maintaining or adopting a healthy diet
  • getting regular physical activity
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • avoiding smoke
  • getting your cholesterol checked regularly
  • controlling your blood pressure
  • taking any medications as prescribed

Visit our hub to learn more about heart health.

Summary

Purple skin is a common symptom of injury, trauma, and many medical conditions. Treatment depends on the underlying cause.

If you are experiencing purple skin discoloration that is not due to bruising from an injury or that is persistent, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 May 23
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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.