What is cape cyanosis vector

What is Cape Cyanosis? (2024)

by | Updated: Mar 14, 2024

Cape cyanosis is a medical condition characterized by a bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes. It’s a significant indicator of underlying health issues, primarily related to inadequate oxygenation of the blood.

This article breaks down the causes, symptoms, and potential treatments of cape cyanosis, offering a comprehensive understanding of its medical implications and the importance of early diagnosis and intervention.

What is Cape Cyanosis?

Cape cyanosis is a deep, abnormal bluish discoloration of the skin localized to the face, neck, chest, and back, resembling a cape. Indicative of hypoxemia or inadequate oxygenation, it often signals severely reduced blood flow. This finding is often associated with a pulmonary embolism, a serious blockage in the pulmonary arteries caused by a blood clot.

cyanosis illustration


Cape cyanosis is primarily caused by a significant reduction in arterial blood oxygenation, leading to the distinctive bluish discoloration of the skin in the cape-like distribution over the face, neck, chest, and back.

The most common causes include:

  • Pulmonary Embolism: This is a blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries in the lungs, usually due to a blood clot. It significantly impairs blood oxygenation.
  • Severe Respiratory Disorders: Conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), severe pneumonia, or advanced lung cancer can drastically reduce lung function, leading to decreased oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Congenital Heart Defects: Certain heart defects present from birth can cause mixing of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood, leading to cyanosis.
  • Cardiac Arrest or Severe Heart Failure: These conditions can lead to inadequate circulation and oxygenation of blood.
  • Severe Hypoxemia: This refers to abnormally low concentrations of oxygen in the blood, which can be due to various respiratory or circulatory problems.
  • Exposure to Cold Temperatures: Extreme cold can cause vasoconstriction, reducing blood flow and oxygen supply to the skin, exacerbating cyanosis.

Note: Prompt diagnosis and treatment of the underlying cause are crucial in managing cape cyanosis, given its association with potentially life-threatening conditions.


The treatment for cape cyanosis focuses on addressing the underlying cause of the decreased oxygenation in the blood, as the cyanosis itself is a symptom rather than a standalone condition.

Key treatment strategies include:

  • Oxygen Therapy: Administering supplemental oxygen is crucial to increase blood oxygen levels, especially in cases of hypoxemia.
  • Treating Pulmonary Embolism: If a pulmonary embolism is the cause, treatments may include anticoagulants (blood thinners) to prevent further clotting, thrombolytic therapy to dissolve existing clots, and in severe cases, surgical intervention.
  • Managing Respiratory Disorders: For conditions like COPD or pneumonia, treatments may involve bronchodilators, steroids, antibiotics, or other medications, along with supportive care like chest physiotherapy and supplemental oxygen.
  • Cardiac Support: In cases of heart failure or congenital heart defects, treatments might involve medications to improve heart function, surgical interventions, or in some cases, heart transplant.
  • Avoiding Cold Exposure: Keeping the patient warm can help in cases where exposure to cold is a contributing factor.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: This includes quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and regular exercise, especially in cases related to chronic lung or heart conditions.
  • Regular Monitoring and Follow-up: Regular check-ups and monitoring are crucial to adjust treatments as needed and to manage the underlying condition effectively.

Immediate medical attention is necessary for cape cyanosis, as it can be indicative of serious and potentially life-threatening conditions.

What is a Pulmonary Embolism?

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a serious medical condition where one or more arteries in the lungs become blocked by a blood clot. These clots typically originate in the deep veins of the legs, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

When part of the clot breaks off, it can travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing a blockage.

The key aspects of pulmonary embolism include:

  • Symptoms: These can vary but often include shortness of breath, chest pain that may become worse when breathing in, cough (sometimes with bloody sputum), rapid heart rate, and lightheadedness or dizziness.
  • Risk Factors: Prolonged immobility (like long flights or bed rest), surgery, certain medical conditions (like cancer or heart disease), smoking, obesity, and a family history of blood clots are known risk factors.
  • Diagnosis: PE is typically diagnosed through imaging tests such as a CT scan of the lungs (CT pulmonary angiography) or a lung ventilation/perfusion scan, along with blood tests, an ultrasound of the legs, and an ECG.
  • Treatment: Treatment usually involves anticoagulant medications (blood thinners) to prevent further clotting, thrombolytic therapy to break down existing clots in severe cases, and sometimes surgical interventions.
  • Prevention: Preventative measures include blood thinners for at-risk individuals, compression stockings to prevent DVT, and lifestyle changes like regular exercise and avoiding smoking.

Note: It’s crucial to seek immediate medical attention if a pulmonary embolism is suspected, as it can be life-threatening and requires prompt treatment.

Central vs. Peripheral Cyanosis

Central and peripheral cyanosis are two types of cyanosis, distinguished by their causes and the areas of the body they affect.

Both indicate problems with blood oxygenation, but their underlying causes and implications can be quite different.

Central Cyanosis

  • Location: Central cyanosis is observed in the core (central) areas of the body, including the lips, tongue, and chest. It can also be seen in mucous membranes.
  • Cause: It is typically caused by a systemic decrease in arterial oxygenation, which can be due to respiratory issues (like severe pneumonia, bronchitis) or cardiac problems (such as congenital heart defects or heart failure).
  • Indication: Central cyanosis is generally a sign of serious systemic health issues and indicates that the problem is with the oxygenation of blood in the heart or lungs.
  • Appearance: It often presents as a consistent blue coloration that does not change much with warming or massage.

Peripheral Cyanosis:

  • Location: Peripheral cyanosis is observed in the extremities, such as the fingers, toes, and sometimes the nose and earlobes.
  • Cause: It is usually due to local vasoconstriction or stasis, leading to increased extraction of oxygen from the blood in the peripheral tissues. Common causes include exposure to cold, circulatory problems, and more localized issues like Raynaud’s phenomenon.
  • Indication: Unlike central cyanosis, peripheral cyanosis might not indicate a systemic problem with blood oxygenation but rather a local issue with blood circulation to certain areas of the body.
  • Appearance: The discoloration typically intensifies in cold temperatures and might lessen with warming or massaging the affected area.

Note: In both cases, cyanosis is a symptom that warrants medical evaluation to determine and address the underlying cause. However, central cyanosis often requires more urgent medical attention due to its association with systemic and potentially life-threatening conditions.

FAQs About Cape Cyanosis

What is the Pathophysiology of Cyanosis?

Cyanosis occurs when there is an increased amount of deoxygenated hemoglobin in the blood, leading to a bluish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes.

This can happen if oxygen levels in the blood drop significantly, or if there is impaired oxygenation of blood in the lungs or poor blood circulation.

In essence, cyanosis reflects a deficiency in the oxygenation of blood or an issue with the distribution of oxygenated blood to the body.

What Does Cyanosis Look Like?

Cyanosis typically appears as a bluish or purplish tinge to the skin and mucous membranes.

In lighter-skinned individuals, it is more noticeable in areas with thinner skin, such as the lips, gums, and around the eyes. In darker-skinned individuals, cyanosis may be more evident in the mucous membranes, like the inner lips and tongue, and under the nails.

It’s important to note that cyanosis is more difficult to detect visually in darker skin tones.

What is Classic Cape Cyanosis?

Classic cape cyanosis is a specific pattern of cyanosis where the bluish discoloration is localized to the “cape” areas of the body – the face, neck, upper chest, and back.

It’s called ‘cape’ cyanosis due to its resemblance to a cloak draped over these areas.

This pattern of cyanosis is often indicative of severe hypoxemia or oxygen deprivation and can be associated with life-threatening conditions like a pulmonary embolism.

How Does Pulmonary Embolism Cause Cyanosis?

Pulmonary embolism causes cyanosis by obstructing blood flow in the pulmonary arteries, the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lungs for oxygenation.

This blockage can significantly reduce the amount of oxygenated blood returning to the left side of the heart and subsequently being distributed to the rest of the body.

As a result, the blood contains a higher level of deoxygenated hemoglobin, leading to the bluish discoloration characteristic of cyanosis.

What Does Cape Cyanosis Look Like?

Cape cyanosis appears as a distinct bluish or purplish discoloration, predominantly covering the upper body areas such as the face, neck, upper chest, and back.

The term “cape” in cape cyanosis refers to its resemblance to a cloak or cape draped over these areas.

This type of cyanosis is particularly notable due to its localized nature, contrasting with the more general spread seen in other forms of cyanosis.

What Does it Mean When There is Cape Cyanosis Across the Chest?

Cape cyanosis across the chest, as part of its distribution over the upper body, is a significant clinical sign.

It indicates severe oxygen deprivation in these regions and is often associated with serious underlying conditions, such as pulmonary embolism or severe respiratory disorders.

This localized pattern of cyanosis suggests a systemic issue with oxygenation and requires immediate medical attention.

What Causes Upper Body Cyanosis?

Upper body cyanosis, including cape cyanosis, can be caused by conditions that lead to severe reduction in oxygen saturation in the blood.

Key causes include pulmonary embolism (a blockage in the pulmonary artery), severe respiratory disorders like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or acute severe asthma, certain types of congenital heart diseases, and extreme cases of heart failure.

These conditions affect the body’s ability to oxygenate the blood effectively, leading to cyanosis in the upper body.

What is the Difference Between Cyanosis and Pallor?

Cyanosis and pallor are both visual signs of potential underlying health issues but indicate different problems.

Cyanosis is characterized by a bluish or purplish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes, indicating a lack of oxygen in the blood. In contrast, pallor refers to an unusual paleness of the skin, often resulting from reduced blood flow or a decrease in the number of red blood cells (anemia).

While cyanosis is related to oxygen saturation issues, pallor is often associated with blood circulation problems or a reduction in hemoglobin.

What is Peripheral Cyanosis?

Peripheral cyanosis is a condition where there is bluish discoloration in the peripheral parts of the body, such as the fingers, toes, and sometimes the ears and nose.

It occurs due to a decrease in blood circulation or an increased extraction of oxygen in the extremities. Causes can include cold temperatures, circulatory issues, or heart conditions.

Unlike central cyanosis, which reflects overall oxygenation issues, peripheral cyanosis often points to local blood flow problems.

What is Central Cyanosis?

Central cyanosis is a medical sign characterized by bluish discoloration of the central parts of the body, such as the lips, tongue, and chest.

It occurs when there’s a decrease in arterial oxygen saturation, commonly due to respiratory or heart conditions that affect the overall oxygenation of blood.

Central cyanosis is often a more serious sign compared to peripheral cyanosis and requires immediate medical evaluation.

Is Cyanosis Dangerous?

Cyanosis can be dangerous as it often indicates underlying health issues that may require immediate attention. It signifies either a problem with the oxygenation of the blood or issues with blood circulation.

The severity depends on the underlying cause; for example, central cyanosis related to heart or lung conditions can be life-threatening.

Early detection and treatment of the cause of cyanosis are crucial for preventing potential complications.

Final Thoughts

Cape cyanosis serves as a critical warning sign of possible severe respiratory or circulatory problems. Understanding its causes and symptoms is vital for timely medical intervention.

While cape cyanosis itself is not a disease, it is a symptom of potentially serious conditions that require immediate attention.

Early detection and treatment of the underlying causes can significantly improve patient outcomes, emphasizing the importance of awareness and prompt medical consultation in cases where cape cyanosis is observed.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


  • Adeyinka, Adebayo, and Noah P. Kondamudi. “Cyanosis.” National Library of Medicine, 2 May 2022.
  • Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.
  • Clinical Manifestations and Assessment of Respiratory Disease. 8th ed., Mosby, 2019.

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