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 master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Fauci AS, Braunwald E, Kasper DL, et al (Eds). Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 17th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical, 2008.

Camp-Sorrell D, Hawkins RA. Clinical Manual for the Oncology Advanced Practice Nurse, Second Ed. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.

Cope DG, Reb AM. An Evidence-Based Approach to the Treatment and Care of the Older Adult with Cancer. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.

Houts PS, Bucher JA. Caregiving, Revised ed. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2003.

Kaplan M. Understanding and Managing Oncologic Emergencies: A Resource for Nurses. Pittsburgh: Oncology Nursing Society, 2006.

Kuebler KK, Berry PH, Heidrich DE. End-of-Life Care: Clinical Practice Guidelines. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co. 2002.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. Palliative Care. Version 1.2015. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/palliative.pdf on March 19, 2015.

Oncology Nursing Society. Cancer Symptoms. Accessed at www.cancersymptoms.org on April 3, 2013.

Ripamonti C, Bruera E. Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Advanced Cancer Patients. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Varricchio CG. A Cancer Source Book for Nurses, 8th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004.

Yarbro CH, Frogge MH, Goodman M. Cancer Symptom Management, 3rd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2004.

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

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.