"Pallor" is a medical term that describes an uncharacteristic paleness of the skin. It is associated with conditions ranging in severity from emotional upset and cold to leukemia, shock and heart problems. Although pallor is often not serious, its presence alerts doctors to look for associated symptoms that suggest that the patient is not circulating enough oxygen in his or her blood.
Light-skinned people who experience pallor appear to be very pale. Darker skinned people tend to look gray or ashen. Depending on the cause, the person might appear pale or ashen all over, such as with anemia, or the discoloration might be confined to a single area, such as with an injured or frostbitten limb. Medically significant pallor usually is accompanied by paleness in the lining of the eyes, mouth, tongue, fingernails and/or palms. Normal coloration in these areas generally means that there is no need for treatment and the person's color is expected to return to normal on its own.
A person's natural skin tone is determined by the amount of pigment, or melanin, in his or her skin. Clinically significant paleness, or pallor, results from decreased oxygen in the blood or changes in circulation rather than from a decrease in pigmentation. Even very naturally pale people can appear to lose color when they are sick, cold or afraid. This is because blood is drawn away from the skin in times of stress, cold or illness, causing the person's coloration to appear to change. After these conditions have resolved, the skin's color should return to normal.
A wide range of diseases and conditions is associated with pale or ashen skin. Many people experience pallor when cold or sick with common ailments such as influenza. Pallor also can be associated with more insidious conditions, such as anemia or an ulcer. Persistent paleness that is not connected with an obvious cause should be discussed with a medical professional to rule out more serious conditions, such as circulatory problems or rheumatological conditions.
Pallor is associated with a wide range of conditions, so its significance is sometimes overlooked. Life-threatening conditions, such as impending cardiac arrest or a serious asthma attack, are often accompanied by marked paleness. Immediate treatment should be obtained if a person pales suddenly, especially if it is accompanied by shortness of breath, chest pain or fatigue. In addition to sudden and obvious signs of emergency, paleness associated with blood in the stool should be treated very seriously.