What Causes Pallor (Paleness)?

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 22, 2022

You may have noticed that sometimes your skin gets a bit more pale than usual.

If you have a darker skin tone, you may appear ashen, and for people with lighter skin tones, the face can look quite pale or even a bit yellow.

This sickly pale coloring, also called pallor, can be due to many reasons and causes, and many of them are temporary and treatable. 

This article will explore what pallor is and its leading causes.

We will also look at possible treatments and other symptoms to watch out for, and then discuss when to seek medical attention.

What Is Pallor (Paleness)?

An unusual loss of color, or paleness, in the skin (e.g., the face) is known as pallor.

If you notice that your natural coloring or normal complexion is lighter than usual, you may be experiencing pallor.

In many cases, pallor lasts for just a short amount of time. 

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Causes

Pallor (paleness) occurs when the supply of blood is decreased to an area of skin, most commonly the face.

Pallor can look different depending on a person’s regular skin tone and can be more obvious in people with lighter skin colors. 

Some common causes of pallor include:

Anemia

Anemia affects more than 3 million people in the country.

It is a common blood condition caused by having a low red blood cell count.

A lower than normal red blood cell count leads to not enough oxygen being circulated across the body, leaving the affected person feeling tired, dizzy, and pale.

Apart from pallor, other symptoms of anemia to watch out for include cold hands and feet, shortness of breath, chronic fatigue, headaches, and an irregular heartbeat. 

Cyanosis

This condition occurs when a bluish-purple hue appears on the skin and can be most often noticed in the lips, eyes, earlobes, and nails.

Cyanosis occurs when less oxygen is bound to the hemoglobin of red blood cells.

Many times, pallor with cyanosis occurs due to an accompanying underlying condition and will also cause other symptoms such as fatigue, difficulty in breathing, pain or numbness in the fingers and toes, and coughing or wheezing.

Such cyanosis can be a medical emergency in some cases, so see a doctor right away if you notice a blue discoloration.

Shock, stress, and anxiety

You may notice that when you suddenly get shocked or frightened, your body goes pale, and you may even faint suddenly.

The emotional distress from a shocking event or series of events can cause the blood to suddenly drain from an area of your body or can lead to a drop in blood sugar.

This can also happen when your body is suddenly exposed to extreme cold, leading to pallor from decreased blood flow to the skin.

Treatment

Each cause of pallor will have its own treatment.

A medical professional will advise you on the best possible route to take after a thorough examination and diagnosis.

If you are experiencing pallor (paleness) for a short amount of time, you can keep it under control by:

  • Consuming a diet that is rich in vitamins B, C, and D, iron, protein, and fiber: If you are experiencing pallor due to a vitamin deficiency, a medical professional will be able to run some tests to identify this. Your healthcare provider will also prescribe the right supplements to counter pallor and other symptoms. It is also important to keep your body hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Getting plenty of rest: If you are experiencing pallor due to sudden shock or stress, take precautions to ease your body and mind after traumatic situations. Many people experience pallor when they hear sudden frightening news or if they witness a traumatic event. Consider speaking to a medical professional to learn techniques for managing panic attacks and stress and get appropriate medication if needed.
  • Taking the proper medication: If you have a chronic ailment or long-term medical condition, it is imperative that you follow your doctor’s advice and take your required dose of medication. This applies even if you start feeling better or if symptoms subside. Do not suddenly stop or change your medication without consulting a healthcare professional. 
  • Encouraging healthy blood circulation: Avoid sitting or standing in sedentary positions for long periods of time. Lead a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly, avoiding smoking and tobacco, and limiting the intake of alcohol. Keep your feet and hands warm in extremely cold weather, and keep them cool in very hot temperatures. Wear clothing that promotes blood circulation at all times. 

It is important to remember that these treatments for pallor will not work for everyone and for all conditions of pallor.

Seek professional medical help for accurate treatments for each cause. 

Other Possible Symptoms

Each cause of pallor comes with its own set of additional symptoms, as indicated individually above, including difficulty in breathing, shortness of breath, fever, fatigue, chest pains, and discoloration in the eyes and lips. 

In darker-skinned individuals, the symptoms of pallor may not be obvious by looking at only the skin color.

Look for unusual, pale, or blue colors in the lips, eyes, palms, and other body areas. 

Diagnosis

A medical professional can accurately determine the cause of your pallor after conducting a thorough examination.

They may ask you a few questions regarding your eating habits, lifestyle, routine, medical history, and family medical history to get more insight into your condition. 

Be completely honest with your healthcare professional so they can diagnose you efficiently and effectively.

If you notice any of the above-mentioned additional symptoms, note them and tell the medical professional when they first appeared and for how long they lasted. 

Your healthcare professional may conduct a thorough physical examination by looking at your skin, eyes, and mouth and, in some cases, may order additional tests such as a colonoscopy, blood test, urine sample, thyroid function tests, or a complete blood count (CBC), to reach an accurate diagnosis of pallor. 

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When To Seek Medical Attention

If you experience pallor (paleness) for more than a few minutes, then seek help from a medical professional.

If other symptoms like those mentioned above accompany pallor, then visit your nearest emergency room or call 911 immediately.

If you are having trouble breathing, see someone faint, or experience other unexplained symptoms, then you will need a healthcare professional to take a look at you quickly. 

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? 

If you have further questions about pallor or are experiencing symptoms for long periods of time, then reach out to our team of experts any time, from wherever you are. With K Health, you don’t need an appointment, and there’s no need to wait for a consultation. Our board-certified clinicians with training from top-tier institutions provide personalized care 24/7.

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does pallor mean paleness?
Yes, pallor usually does mean a paleness in complexion when compared to your skin’s normal coloring. Your skin may appear lighter than it should and is usually noticeable on the face.
What causes pallor?
A sudden loss or reduction of blood flow and oxygen to an area of skin, like on your face, can make it appear paler than normal, causing pallor. Some common causes include fatigue, stress, shock, low blood sugar, amenia, frostbite, and a reaction to a medication. In most cases, pallor will subside in a few minutes, but if it prolongs, you will need to seek medical help from a professional.
What can pallor indicate?
Pallor indicates that there is a loss or decrease of blood flow to the skin, usually evident on the face. It could indicate that the person is going through a sudden shock or stress, that their blood is low on sugar, or that they have a more serious underlying or chronic condition such as anemia or an infection. Only a medical expert can provide an accurate diagnosis of the cause of pallor.
What skin color is pallor?
When skin appears lighter or paler than normal, it is known as pallor. Each person’s skin tone will look different due to pallor, and in some, it can appear a different color and not just pale. If you have a light skin tone, then you will look even lighter or whiter with pallor, or sometimes a bit yellow. Someone with a dark skin tone may appear ashen, gray, or pink with pallor. You might need to check more than skin color to identify pallor in some skin tones. A medical professional may check the eyes and mouth as well to make a more accurate diagnosis.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.