What What Does Code Blue, Code Black, and Code Red Mean?

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

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What is the "Code"?

"Code Red" "Code Blue" "Code Black"...people sometimes wonder what these terms mean if they happen to hear them used in a hospital (or more likely, hear them used on a TV series about doctors). TV series like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Code Black" seem to have sparked an renewed interest in the topic of "Codes" in medicine.

Technically, there's no formal definition for a "Code", but doctors often use the term as slang for a cardiopulmonary arrest happening to a patient in a hospital or clinic, requiring a team of providers (sometimes called a "code team") to rush to the specific location and begin immediate resuscitative efforts.

What are "Code Red" and "Code Blue"?

Each hospital or clinic can decide how it wishes to manage and inform staff of potential emergencies. Many institutions use colors (e.g. "Code Red", "Code Blue") to identify specific types of emergencies. "Code Red" and "Code Blue" are both terms that are often used to refer to a cardiopulmonary arrest, but other types of emergencies (for example bomb threats, terrorist activity, child abductions, or mass casualties) may be given "Code" designations too. Colors, numbers, or other designations may follow a "Code" announcement to identify the type of emergency that is occurring.

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Other hospital "Codes" and applications

Some hospitals announce emergencies ("Codes") over a public address system, while others just alert the necessary personnel via a pager system. Also, the use of the term "Code" to signify that an emergency is occurring is not limited to medical practice. Other institutions, such as office buildings, schools, or government facilities may use "Code" designations to alert personnel that an emergency is occurring.

In summary, there are no standard definitions or conventions for the use of "Code" designations. While "Code blue" does refer to a cardiopulmonary arrest at many hospitals, it doesn't necessarily mean the same thing everywhere. But even if you aren't sure about the meaning of announcements you may hear, keep in mind that every hospital or institution has its own policies and conventions for notification of personnel in the event of emergencies, and the doctors and staff are trained to recognize and respond appropriately to these announcements.

Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care

REFERENCE:

Hospital Emergency Codes: Standardized Health Care Emergency Codes for California
Hospital Association of Southern California


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Reviewed on 1/11/2017

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