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Jaundice

Jaundice is a yellow color of the skin, mucus membranes, or eyes. The yellow coloring comes from bilirubin, a byproduct of old red blood cells. Jaundice can be a symptom of other health problems.

Alternative Names

Conditions associated with jaundice; Yellow skin and eyes; Skin - yellow; Icterus; Eyes - yellow

Causes

A small number of red blood cells in your body die each day, and are replaced by new ones. The liver removes the old blood cells. This creates bilirubin. The liver helps break down bilirubin so that it can be removed by the body in the stool.

Jaundice can occur when too much bilirubin builds up in the body.

Jaundice can occur if:

  • Too many red blood cells are dying or breaking down and going to the liver
  • The liver is overloaded or damaged
  • The bilirubin from the liver is unable to move into the digestive tract properly

Jaundice is often a sign of a problem with the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas. Things that can cause jaundice include:

  • Infections
  • Use of certain drugs
  • Cancer
  • Blood disorders, gallstones, birth defects and a number of other medical conditions can lead to jaundice. For more information on the causes of jaundice see: Jaundice causes

Symptoms

Jaundice may appear suddenly or develop slowly over time. Symptoms of jaundice commonly include:

  • Yellow skin and the white part of the eyes (sclera) -- when jaundice is more severe, these areas may look brown
  • Yellow color inside the mouth
  • Dark or brown-colored urine
  • Pale or clay-colored stools

Note: If the whites of your eyes are not yellow, you may not have jaundice. Your skin can turn a yellow-to-orange color if you eat a lot of beta carotene, the orange pigment in carrots.

Other symptoms depend on the disorder causing the jaundice:

  • Cancers may produce no symptoms, or there may be fatigue, weight loss, or other symptoms
  • Hepatitis may produce nausea, vomiting, fatigue, or other symptoms

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. This may show liver swelling.

A bilirubin blood test will be done. Other tests may include:

Treatment

Treatment depends on the cause of the jaundice.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Contact your health care provider if you develop symptoms of jaundice.

References

Lidofsky SD. Jaundice. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 20.

Updated: 4/15/2013

George F. Longstreth, MD, Department of Gastroenterology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, San Diego, California. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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