What Is Jaundice?

Jaundice Is More Than Just Discolored Skin

Jaundice
Jaundice tends to be very visible, and includes a yellowing in the whites of the eyes. Image © craft vision / E+ / Getty Images

What Is Jaundice?

Jaundice is when a buildup of bilirubin in the blood causes the skin, mucus membranes, and the white part of the eyes to appear yellowish. Bilirubin is a reddish yellow substance produced when red blood cells break down. It is excreted through the liver in bile and then out of the body in stool.

Jaundice itself is not a dangerous condition, but rather is a sign of a more serious condition or disease.

Jaundice should be investigated for its underlying cause.

If you experiencing jaundice, it will need attention from a physician. It's not the jaundice itself that is the problem, it's the condition that is causing the jaundice. The conditions that cause jaundice will need treatment, it is not something that will go away on its own.

Why Would Bilirubin Build Up?

The buildup of bilirubin can be caused by an abnormally high level of red blood cells breaking down, gallstones, or liver disease (such as hepatitis or cirrhosis). Jaundice sometimes affects newborns ("newborn jaundice") because their livers are too immature to process the bilirubin in their bodies.

Other symptoms of jaundice may include:

What Tests Might Be Done For Jaundice?

In some cases, jaundice might be the result of a known condition.

For instance, if a person with liver disease develops jaundice, it's probably a result of the problems with the liver. It could mean, however, that treatment for the liver disease is not as effective as it should be, or that something else is going on. If there isn't any obvious cause for jaundice, a physician might order a series of tests to figure out what is causing it.

Some of these tests can include:

How Is Jaundice Treated?

Jaundice is not really a condition on its own, but is a sign of another problem. so it is managed by treating the disease that is causing the buildup of bilirubin. For a virus that will resolve on its own, jaundice may not require any special treatment, because the body will clear the bilirubin and the virus on its own. For more serious conditions, other treatments might needed to help the liver to manage the bilirubin.

Here's how some of the conditions that cause jaundice might be treated:

  • Alcohol-related cirrhosis or hepatitis. If alcoholic beverages are the cause of the liver disease, stopping drinking is going to be crucial to resolving the jaundice.
  • Anemia. If anemia, the lack of red blood cells, is the cause of jaundice, the treatment might include a blood transfusion.
  • Cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is the end-stage of chronic liver disease, and has many different causes. Treating the jaundice from cirrhosis will depend on the type of liver disease present, but could include the use of corticosteroids or diuretics.
  • Drug toxicities. In the case of a drug causing the harm to the liver, the drug will need to be stopped (this includes prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen, and illegal drugs). Another medication might need to be given to counteract the overdose.
  • Gallstones. Gallstones that are resulting in jaundice might require treatment, which is typically the removal of the gallbladder.
  • Liver cancer. Cancer of the liver will require treatment from a specialist, and may include radiation and chemotherapy, as well as other medications for supportive therapy.
  • Newborn jaundice. Newborn jaundice is common, and will often resolve on its own without any treatment. Some healthcare providers might recommend that newborns get some sunlight exposure to increase vitamin D production and clear the bilirubin. In other cases, a newborn might be given treatment in the hospital using special lights that can help resolve the jaundice.
  • Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). This liver disease is associated with ulcerative colitis, and can cause jaundice. Treatment is largely to help manage symptoms, and can include cholestyramine or diphenhydramine to manage itching, and antibiotics. Surgical treatment to open the bile ducts and the placing of a stent to keep them open might be needed if ducts have become blocked. A liver transplant is a treatment that is used in severe cases.

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