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Paleness

Paleness is an abnormal loss of color from normal skin or mucous membranes.

Considerations

Unless pale skin is accompanied by pale lips, tongue, palms of the hands, inside of the mouth, and lining of the eyes, it is probably not a serious condition, and does not require treatment.

General paleness affects the entire body. It is most easily seen on the face, lining of the eyes, inner mouth, and nails. Local paleness usually affects a single limb.

How easily paleness is diagnosed varies with skin color, and the thickness and amount of blood vessels in the tissue under the skin. Sometimes it is only a lightening of skin color. Paleness may be difficult to detect in a dark-skinned person -- and is detected only in the eye and mouth lining.

Causes

Paleness may be the result of decreased blood supply to the skin. It can also be due to decreased number of red blood cells (anemia). Paleness of the skin is not the same as loss of pigment from the skin. Paleness is related to blood flow in the skin rather than deposit of melanin in the skin.

Paleness can be caused by:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider or emergency number if a person suddenly develops generalized paleness. Emergency action may be needed to maintain proper blood circulation.

Also call your health care provider if paleness is accompanied by shortness of breath, blood in the stool, or other unexplained symptoms.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The health care provider will examine you and ask about your medical history and symptoms, including:

  • Did the paleness develop suddenly?
  • Did it happen after reminders of a traumatic event?
  • Are you pale all over or only in one part of the body? If so, where?
  • What other symptoms do you have? For example, do you have pain, shortness of breath, blood in the stool, or are you vomiting blood?
  • Do you have a pale arm, hand, leg or foot, and cannot feel a pulse in the area?

Tests that may be ordered include:

Alternative Names

Skin - pale or gray; Pallor

References

High WA, Tomasini CF, Argenziano G, Zalaudek I. Basic principles of dermatology. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Schaffer JV, eds. Dermatology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 1.

Goldman L. Approach to the patient with possible cardiovascular disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 50.

Update Date: 4/14/2013

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.

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