white screen of death in WordPress
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If you’ve been blinded by the whiteness of your site and found a blank screen staring at you then you’ve already met the infamous white screen of death in WordPress (aka. WSOD).

One minute the site works okay, and the other everything goes blank. (This can also happen when your dashboard isn’t loading properly even though the front of the site is actually working.)

Today, let’s look into what causes the white screen of death in WordPress and how to fix it:

The most common causes of the white screen of death in WordPress

Cause #1: Auto upgrade issues

The symptoms may mimic those of a misconfigured database – presenting you with a white screen with no information at all. Or you may see a warning of a failed update.

These occur when there’s a connection problem that interrupts your updates or incorrect file permissions, which you need to fix.

If you encounter this issue, you’ll need to do a manual WordPress upgrade.

Cause #2: Maintenance mode freeze

Sometimes WordPress gets stuck at:

white screen of death in WordPress due to a maintenance error

It means that a .maintenance file, which WordPress automatically installs when it starts updating, hasn’t been removed.

To do this manually, you’ll need to log in to your site using an FTP client or via your hosting dashboard (cPanel, Plesk, etc) and delete .maintenance, located in your website root folder.

Cause #3: Problems with plugins

The white screen of death in WordPress is a possible culprit if you attempt to:

  • Modify an active plugin
  • Update an old one
  • Install a new plugin

In many cases, the plugin that has just been installed or modified could result in a conflict with your current theme or other plugins. That’s why it’s important to use WordPress products developed using best practices.

Try to disable any recently modified or installed plugins and see if your WordPress goes back to normal.

In case your dashboard isn’t operational at all, you can disable plugins in WordPress using FTP access. A caveat is that you’ll only be able to do this if you have access to your FTP with the required directory permissions. Most hosting companies provide FTP service. However, if WordPress is installed on a Virtual Private Server or you’re with a managed host, you might not have an FTP server.

You may need to install an FTP client, such as FileZilla.

To disable the plugin:

  • Use an authorized account to sign in to your FTP server
  • Find your WordPress installation directory and open the folder wp_content/plugins
  • Select the folder with the plugin’s name
  • Rename the folder to a different name you can still recognize e.g. if the folder is called my-bad-plugin name it _my-bad-plugin or my-bad-plugin_disabled. Choose any name provided it doesn’t sound like any other plugin’s name and you can remember it later
  • That’s it! Renaming the folder permanently disables the plugin

Reopen your browser and see whether your site loads. Use the above steps to disable as many plugins as you need to in order to combat the white screen of death in WordPress.

Alternatively, you can disable all of your WordPress plugins simultaneously. Here’s how:

Disabling all your plugins one by one could take you a longer while. Instead, you can rename the main plugins folder to something else, e.g. from wp_content/plugins to wp_content/plugins_old. This should disable all your plugins simultaneously.

Then, create another folder called wp_content/plugins. You can activate each plugin by moving them to the new plugins folder.

If your case of the white screen of death in WordPress was caused by a particular plugin’s modification, disabling the plugin through your FTP server should resolve the problem. As a rule of thumb, test all your modified plugins using a backup site before launching on your main WordPress.

Cause #4: Problems with themes

Just like the white screen of death caused by plugins above, disabling the theme can resolve any WSOD problems that are theme-related. The following are some common causes and solutions:

a) Problems when installing a new theme

New themes can cause a conflict with existing plugins. In this case, deactivate the newly installed theme, which will cause WordPress to revert to your automatic default theme. Ensure that the default theme hasn’t already been deleted. If so, upload it back to your themes folder within wp_content/themes.

To disable the theme, follow the same procedure described above for plugins, except this time working with the wp_content/themes folder rather than the plugins folder. Rename the specific theme’s folder, which automatically deactivates the theme.

b) Problems with badly coded themes

A major WordPress update oftentimes can drive poorly coded themes out. Poorly-coded or outdated themes will often not work once the latest WordPress update is installed.

500 error

If you notice that the white screen of death in WordPress appeared immediately / soon after conducting an update, your old theme is mostly likely to be the reason behind it. Deactivating your theme as described above could turn things back to normal.

c) Problems with theme modification

WordPress isn’t a fan of buggy coding. Its proper working depends on a set of well-built objects operating in harmony. If one of those parts is missing or malfunctions, your WordPress will fail to work, resulting in the WSOD.

Themes made by reputable theme shops (shameless plug) and those found in the WordPress.org repository are comprehensively tested for any defects. If your white screen of death in WordPress comes after installing any of such themes, the problem could be a plugin-theme conflict.

Modifying or updating themes by hand could cause occurrence of improper coding, which is the heart of most WSOD problems. Try to replace the modified file with an old copy from your backup. Otherwise, you should download and reinstall original theme files.

Cause #5: Going above the allowable memory limit

This is a classic indication that your site has grown beyond what your current hosting provider gives you. Higher amounts of traffic to your site demand higher memory limits, so you should plan to upgrade accordingly.

Start by increasing your PHP memory allocation by adding or editing this line in your wp-config.php file:

define('WP_MEMORY_LIMIT', '64M');

For shared hosts, a memory limit of 64MB is sufficient. Consult the hosting provider if the problem persists after making this alteration.

Cheap web hosting can also come at the expense of quality. Such providers want to ensure that they get as many customers within a single server as they can. Therefore, the resources allocated to every client are very limited, for example RAM. If you can’t increase your memory limit, you’ll need to upgrade to the next plan to stop the white screen of death in WordPress from occurring.

In the end, most WordPress users and admins will be faced with the infamous WSOD at one point or another in their lives. This problem won’t arise from the WordPress core itself, but with using themes and plugins not coded with WordPress best practices in mind, user errors, or hosting limitations.

If you don’t want to worry all that much about this white screen of death, you should first go for quality WordPress hosting provider. A good company will sort out any potential problems as they arise, ensuring that your downtime is kept at a minimum.

It’s important to stay positive and remember that there’s a solution to every situation that you face.

About the author: Dragan Nikolic is a WordPress copywriter and blogger for hire passionate about startups and minimalism.
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