Why Are Your Eyes Yellow?

6 Conditions That Cause Yellow Eyes

Yellow Eyes
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An abnormally high level of bilirubin can cause the whites of the eyes to appear yellow. Bilirubin is a yellow substance found in bile, a substance that breaks down fats. When the whites of the eyes turn yellow, it usually signifies a problem somewhere in the body, such as one that causes a buildup of bilirubin.

Some people refer to yellowish eyes as looking "jaundiced," which refers to a yellowing of the eyes from a build-up of a bilirubin in the eyes and the rest of the body.

The correct term for yellow eyes is "icterus." Icterus refers only to yellowish eyes, whereas jaundice refers to a yellow appearance in the eyes as well as the rest of the body.

If your eyes appear yellow, it could also be due to a simple, benign cause, but sometimes yellowish eyes can be a sign of something much more serious. Below are other conditions that could cause your eyes to appear yellow.

Subconjunctival Hemorrhage

The white part of your eye, known as the sclera, is covered by a thin, clear tissue called the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva also lines the inside of your eyelid, housing a meshwork of thin blood vessels. These blood vessels can easily burst or break. When they break, blood leaks out and settles between the conjunctiva and the sclera. If the leak is small, a part of your eye may look a bit discolored, sometimes yellow or a little red. However, if the leak is large enough, the entire white part of your eye may appear bright red.

A subconjunctival hemorrhage often appears as a bright red pool of blood in your eye. The condition usually causes no pain or vision changes, but occasionally causes minor itching of the eye. A scratchy sensation may sometimes be felt upon blinking. A subconjunctival hemorrhage, or eye bleed, can be caused by the following:

  • Trauma

  • Hard coughing

  • Hard sneezing

  • Vomiting

  • Heavy lifting

  • Forceful hand rubbing of the eye

  • Constipation

  • Various eye infections

Occasionally, a subconjunctival hemorrhage can be a warning sign for diabetes, hypertension, bleeding or blood disorders, leukemia and sickle cell disease. It is important to have your optometrist or ophthalmologist examine the hemorrhage to identify a cause and rule out other possible health disorders. Visible blood in your eye due to subconjunctival hemorrhage will be slowly reabsorbed by your body. Most hemorrhages resolve within about seven days without treatment. A large subconjunctival hemorrhage can take up to two to three weeks to go away. The redness may turn to a yellow-orange color, pink and then white again. Your eye will not be stained permanently by the blood. Artificial tears may be applied to decrease any feelings of scratchiness.

Treatment

Most cases of subconjunctival hemorrhage will disappear on their own. Your body will usually absorb the blood within a week or two. 

Hyperbilirubinemia

Hyperbilirubinemia refers to increased levels of bilirubin. Bile is released into the small intestine by the gallbladder when it is needed to break down fats that are being digested.

Bilirubin is produced when the liver breaks down old red blood cells. Bilirubin is then removed from the body through the stool (feces) and gives stool its normal brown color. When an abnormally high number of red blood cells is broken down, bilirubin can build up quickly in the body. Liver disease can also cause bilirubin levels to be abnormally high. Too much bilirubin is one cause of jaundice. Doctors usually order several types of liver function tests to rule out liver problems. 

Treatment

Treatment will depend on the cause of elevated bilirubin levels. Once the cause is taken care of, yellowing of the eyes and skin often disappears.

Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is a rare infection caused by a bacteria called Leptospira genus. People with this infection often develop significant yellowing of the eyes. This infection shows up more in warmer climates and places where a person has exposure to water that has been contaminated by animal urine. People with leptospirosis develop a cough, sore throat, headache, muscle and stomach pain and swollen lymph nodes. They also develop an enlarged spleen or liver. 

Treatment

Antibiotic treatment usually causes the infection to resolve. 

Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a chronic disease that produces a strong urge to drink alcohol. Excessive abuse of alcohol can damage the liver. People who drink excessive amounts of alcohol on a daily basis are at great risk of developing alcoholic liver disease. Liver disease including hepatitis and cirrhosis can cause jaundice, resulting in yellowing of the eyes. 

Treatment

Treatment for liver disease caused by alcoholism includes stopping the drinking of alcohol.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is an infection of the pancreas. This condition causes the pancreas to swell and to become inflamed. Pancreatitis causes abdominal pain as well as jaundice of the eyes and skin.

Treatment

Treatment of pancreatitis involves hospitalization with specialized care.

Hemolytic Anemia

Hemolytic anemia is a blood condition that develops when the body breaks down red blood cells too quickly, leading to severe anemia. Bilirubin levels increase when red blood cells break down too quickly, causing the whites of the eyes to appear yellow.

Treatment

Treating hemolytic anemia involves determining the cause of depleting red blood cells within the body.

A Word From Verywell

Yellowing of the whites of your eyes is a symptom that needs to be checked by your doctor. If yellowing occurs in one eye only, it may be due to a burst blood vessel, which could signal other underlying conditions. If both eyes are yellow, however, you need to seek medical attention. The sooner you begin to explore the causes, the sooner you will be treated and prevent complications.

Sources:

Kabat, Alan and Joseph W. Sowka. Patient has two golden globes. Review of Optometry. 2013.

Boyd, Kierstan. Subconjunctival Hemmorhage. American Academy of Ophthalmology. 2016.

Mayo Clinic. Pancreatitis. 12 Aug 2017.

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