Hospital color codes, and what they mean


Hospitals have lots of codes. The most famous one is Code Blue (medical emergency), but it turns out there are lots of color-based codes. This can be confusing, as the connection between the code colors and the situations they represent are usually tenuous at best. Today we explore all of the types of codes, and shed some light these arcane medical euphemisms.

Code Blue

What it sounds like it means: Aggressively-scented cologne from Armani.

What it actually means: Adult medical emergency, CPR response team required

Medical perspective: Someone is (technically) dead, and we are going to try to make them not dead.

Code Red

What it sounds like it means: Xtreme Mountain Dew energy drink

What it actually means: The building is on fire

Medical perspective: I’m completely at a loss on this one. Why not just call it a fire? Who are we protecting by changing the name? Code Red, Code Red, everyone evacuate the building, so your body doesn’t catch on code red. Hey, when this is all over, let’s all go back to my place and roast marshmallows over a nice cozy code red!

Code Green

What it sounds like it means: San Francisco-based education startup that teaches children C++ and Java while instilling in them the values of environmental stewardship and conservation. The kids help write software to run large wind turbines, which in turn power the computers they learn on.

What it actually means: Behavioral emergency

Medical perspective: These can get weird. I once had a patient threaten to summon a meteor ‘the size of Texas’ to smite me.

Code Orange

What it sounds like it means: What the leaders of every other government in the world secretly whispered into their headsets on November 7th, 2016.

What it actually means: Hazardous material spill

Medical perspective: “Isolate and evacuate,” which is the official tagline of hazardous spills.

Code Pink

What it sounds like it means: This one is really sad.

What it actually means: Infant abduction

Medical perspective: Ugh. I can’t think of anything witty. Infant abductors deserve life sentences.

Code Grey

What it sounds like it means: When Anderson Cooper brings the thunder. He is Zeus, and probing, hard-hitting questions are his lightning bolts.

What it actually means: Loss of essential services / infrastructure failure

Medical perspective: Again, seems like we are unnecessarily steeping ourselves in mystery here:

“Code Grey!”


“Code Grey!!”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Loss of essential services and/or infrastructure failure!”


“The basement’s flooded and the computers are down.”

“Why didn’t you just say that instead?”

“No time!!”



Code Black

What it sounds like it means: If Michael Bay ever got creative control over the James Bond franchise, there’s an 85 percent chance this is the name of the first movie.

What it actually means: Bomb threat

Medical perspective: If a doctor ever describes themselves to you as being “the bomb” at their procedure, go with a different doctor.

Code Purple

What it sounds like it means: Project Runway-style fashion show on Bravo where a team of style experts are dispatched to people’s houses 30 minutes before a major social event to spiff up their look.

What it actually means: Hostage situation

Medical perspective: [Code Purple team, to disgruntled patient]: “Trust me, I’d be desperate too if I had to wear that hospital gown a second longer than I had to.”

Ben Gold is a physician who blogs at his self-titled site, Ben Gold, M.D.

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