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Vasoconstriction

What Is It, Causes, Signs, Symptoms, and More

Authors: Ahmed A. Abu Ajeene, M.B.B.S, Maria Emfietzoglou, MD

Editors: Alyssa Haag, Józia McGowan, DO, Kelsey LaFayette, DNP, RN

Illustrator: Jessica Reynolds, MS

Copyeditor: Stacy M. Johnson, LMSW


What is vasoconstriction?

Vasoconstriction is the narrowing of blood vessels, typically when the muscles of blood vessel walls become constricted, causing the vessel lumen to become smaller. Vasoconstriction can be a reaction to cold, stress, cigarette smoking, medications, or underlying medical conditions, such as the Raynaud phenomenon

Illustration of an artery using a cross section view to show the muscular layer of the vessel wall.

How does vasoconstriction differ from vasodilation?

Vasoconstriction is the opposite of vasodilation. When vasodilation occurs, the blood vessel lumens become larger as the muscles of the blood vessel walls dilate, causing the lumen to widen. The human body keeps these two mechanisms in balance to ensure that blood flows at the correct speed and in the proper amounts.

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What is peripheral vasoconstriction?

Peripheral vasoconstriction occurs when peripheral blood vessels become constricted, most commonly occurring when individuals are exposed to cold. Narrowing peripheral blood vessels constrict blood flow to the periphery (e.g., the skin), preventing the body from losing heat and thereby keeping the body warmer. This physiologic reaction to cold becomes impaired with increased age, making older adults more susceptible to hypothermia or decreased body temperature

What causes vasoconstriction?

Various conditions can cause vasoconstriction, including exposure to cold, as previously mentioned, and in times of stress, where the body produces stress hormones (e.g., norepinephrine) that narrow blood vessels. Cigarette smoking can also tighten blood vessels due to its vasoconstrictive substances, such as nicotine, which binds to receptors on the surface of the muscles in blood vessel walls stimulating their contraction. 

Additionally, vasoconstriction can result from using certain medications, such as nasal decongestants (e.g., pseudoephedrine), which constrict nasal vessels, causing decongestion of the nasal mucosa; as well as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are used for a variety of inflammatory conditions, including arthritis and the common cold. Moreover, vasoconstriction can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, like the Raynaud phenomenon, which is a condition characterized by vasoconstriction of arterioles, or small arteries, near the skin. This condition most often affects the fingers and toes, which changes the color of the affected digits to white, blue, and red. The most common triggers for Raynaud phenomenon are emotional stress and exposure to cold temperatures. Raynaud phenomenon can be primary (i.e., occur on its own) or secondary to other diseases, including connective tissue disorders (e.g., systemic lupus erythematosus and scleroderma), as well as vasculitides, such as Buerger disease and Takayasu arteritis.

What are the signs and symptoms of vasoconstriction?

weakness. Additionally, as less blood passes through constricted blood vessels, less blood is delivered to the skin, causing pallor, which may appear white, and over time, cyanosis, which typically presents as blue. 

Excessive or chronic vasoconstriction can also lead to complications, which include hypertension, or high blood pressure, of the systemic and pulmonary circulation, as the blood has to exert higher force to pass through constricted blood vessels. Vasoconstriction also increases the risk of acute coronary events in individuals with heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease. In cases where vasoconstriction affects one’s fingers and toes, like in Raynaud phenomenon, complications may also include ulcers or even gangrene (i.e., tissue necrosis). Vasoconstriction also increases the risk of acute coronary events in individuals with heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease. 

How is vasoconstriction treated?

The treatment of vasoconstriction focuses on addressing the underlying cause of vasoconstriction and reversing or treating it. For example, vasoconstriction caused by a cold environment may be treated by moving to a warmer climate. On the other hand, vasoconstriction caused by increased stress can be reversed by calming mechanisms and avoiding stressors. The tightening of vessels by cigarette smoking can be changed by smoking cessation. Additionally, medications that cause vasoconstriction may be avoided or discontinued. Finally, treatment of Raynaud phenomenon is focused on treating associated disorders, if possible, and avoiding triggers. If needed, vasodilating medications, such as calcium channel blockers, sildenafil, and topical nitrates, may be given.

What are the most important facts to know about vasoconstriction?

Vasoconstriction is the narrowing of the blood vessels, which is the opposite of vasodilation. Causes of vasoconstriction include exposure to cold which leads to peripheral vasoconstriction; stress; smoking; medications like NSAIDs; and Raynaud phenomenon. Signs and symptoms may include headaches, lightheadedness, pallor, and cyanosis of the affected tissues, while complications may include hypertension, acute coronary events, formation of ulcers, and gangrene. Treatment depends on the underlying cause and involves avoidance of triggers, using vasodilators, and managing disorders. 

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Related links

Raynaud phenomenon
Peripheral artery disease: Pathology review

Resources for research and reference

Cleveland Clinic. Vasoconstriction. Retrieved 24/05/2022 from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/21697-vasoconstriction

MedlinePlus. Vasoconstriction. Retrieved 24/05/2022 from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002338.htm

Healthline. Why does vasoconstriction happen? Retrieved 31/05/2022 from https://www.healthline.com/health/vasoconstriction

Medical News Today. Vasodilation. Retrieved 31/05/2022 from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327402

Mayo Clinic. Raynaud’s disease. Retrieved 31/05/2022 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/raynauds-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20363571