Skin color changes

Skin changes color usually because there’s something going on in the body. For example, a person may look yellow because of liver problems, blue because of breathing problems, bruised because of blood disorders, or red because of skin problems. Changes in the skin can be due to tumor growth, sun exposure, or the side effects of treatment. Some color changes may improve over time, while others may be long lasting.

What to look for

  • Yellowish skin and/or the whites of the eyes. May also have deep orange to brown urine (pee) and/or white or clay-colored (light brown or gray-looking) stools (poop).
  • Bruises or areas of blue or purple skin that have no known cause
  • Very pale or blue-tinged skin, lips, or nail beds. Often with trouble breathing.
  • Redness or rash on skin
  • Swelling in an area that’s discolored
  • Itching

What the patient can do

  • Clean the skin gently with warm water, gentle soap, and a soft cloth.
  • Rinse the red or rash-covered area carefully and pat dry.
  • Apply water-repellent salve, such as petroleum jelly or A+D® ointment. Expose the affected skin to air whenever possible.
  • Protect the affected area from heat and cold.
  • Wear loose-fitting, soft clothing.
  • Apply medicines prescribed for skin reactions.
  • Protect all of your skin from the sun. (For instance, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts when outside.)
  • Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher on any skin exposed to the sun. Re-apply every 2 hours if in the sun, and after bathing or sweating.

What caregivers can do

  • Keep track of any new medicines, soaps, detergents, or foods that may have caused a rash.
  • If a patient’s hands are affected, do not let the patient do tasks involving hot water.
  • Offer gentle massages with moisturizing lotions or creams.

Call the cancer team if the patient:

  • Develops yellowish skin or whites of the eyes (or has urine that stays dark or orange for a day or more and/or stool that looks white or clay-colored for 2 or more bowel movements)
  • Has severe itching
  • Has bruises that don’t go away within a week, or new bruises showing up for 3 days
  • Has red or rash-like areas on the skin

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: May 17, 2016

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