Adults and children with jaundice may notice a yellowish tinge to their skin, mucous membranes, and the whites of the eyes. It can happen with various health conditions and usually indicates a problem with the liver or bile ducts.

When the liver is not working properly, it can cause a waste material called bilirubin to build up in the blood.

With moderate bilirubin levels, a person’s skin, eyes, and mucous membranes can turn yellow. As it progresses, the color can also change from yellow to green. The green color occurs due to biliverdin, the green pigment present in bile.

Jaundice can develop in people of all ages and is normally the result of an underlying condition. Newborns and older adults have the highest likelihood of developing jaundice.

This article discusses what causes jaundice, how healthcare professionals diagnose and treat the condition, and how a person can help to prevent it from occurring. It also explores the symptoms a person can expect.

According to the American Family Physician (AAFP), jaundice is the yellowing of the skin, mucous membranes, and the whites of the eyes that occurs when the body does not process bilirubin as it should.

Bilirubin levels increase as the red blood cells naturally break down. Typically, the liver filters this waste material out of the bloodstream and turns it into a new form called conjugated bilirubin. The new form then exits the body in a person’s stool.

If there is too much bilirubin for the liver to process, it can build up in the body. This is known as hyperbilirubinemia, and it causes the yellow color in the skin and eyes.

Jaundice typically occurs due to an underlying disorder that either causes the production of too much bilirubin or prevents the liver from eliminating it.

Some possible underlying conditions and causes of jaundice include:

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of jaundice.

Jaundice can lead to itching, or pruritis. A 2021 article notes that a person can have warm baths containing oatmeal and take antihistamines for mild pruritis.

A healthcare professional may prescribe medications for those experiencing moderate to severe pruritis, such as cholestyramine or colestipol.

As jaundice may sometimes indicate damage to the liver, a liver transplant may be necessary in some cases, depending on the severity of the injury.

Jaundice is related to liver function.

People can help take care of their liver with several lifestyle changes, such as:

  • eating a balanced diet
  • exercising regularly
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • avoiding toxins from chemicals and other sources, both inhaled and touched
  • managing medications carefully

A 2021 article also suggests:

  • avoiding herbal medications without consulting a healthcare professional first
  • avoiding smoking, alcohol, and intravenous drugs
  • avoiding taking more than the recommended dose of prescribed medications
  • getting the recommended vaccinations before traveling
  • practicing safe sex, such as using barrier methods of contraception

Common symptoms of jaundice include:

  • a yellow tinge to the skin, mucous membranes, and the whites of the eyes
  • pale stools
  • dark urine
  • itchiness

In infants, the yellowish tinge can start at the head and spread down the body to the toes.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that jaundice may be less apparent on Black and Brown skin. It is more obvious in the whites of the eyes.

Accompanying symptoms of jaundice may include:

High levels of bilirubin can be toxic and lead to a rare type of brain damage called kernicterus in infants.

The underlying conditions causing jaundice can also lead to their own complications.

Three main types of jaundice include:

  • Prehepatic: This occurs before the liver processes the waste and results in higher unconjugated bilirubin levels.
  • Hepatic: This occurs in the liver and results in both higher conjugated and unconjugated bilirubin levels.
  • Posthepatic: This occurs after the liver has processed the waste and results in higher conjugated bilirubin levels.

Jaundice is a common health issue in newborn children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that approximately 60% of newborns develop jaundice, and signs appear within 48 hours of birth. A doctor or nurse should examine the baby when they are between 3–5 days old. This is because the bilirubin levels are usually at their highest during this time.

Red blood cells in the body of an infant are frequently broken down and replaced. This causes the production of more bilirubin. In addition, the livers of infants are less developed and are therefore less effective at filtering bilirubin from the body.

Symptoms will usually resolve without treatment in mild cases. However, infants with extremely high bilirubin levels will require treatment with either a blood transfusion or phototherapy.

In these cases, jaundice treatment in newborns is vital to help prevent kernicterus.

Causes of jaundice in newborns

Although jaundice in babies is common and often resolves without treatment, some underlying medical conditions can cause jaundice. These include:

  • underactive thyroid gland
  • blood group incompatibility, when the blood of both the pregnant person and infant become mixed in the womb or during birth
  • rhesus disease, a condition in which the pregnant person’s antibodies destroy the infant’s blood cells
  • urinary tract infection
  • a blockage in the bile ducts and gallbladder
  • Crigler-Najjar syndrome, a condition that affects the enzymes that process bilirubin

Breastfeeding or chestfeeding can also increase the chance of jaundice in newborns. However, there is no need for a person to stop feeding the baby this way. In these cases, the symptoms of jaundice resolve in a few weeks.

According to a 2021 article, normal bilirubin levels are less than 1 milligram per deciliter (mg/dl).

A person has jaundice if these levels reach approximately 3 mg/dl.

A 2021 article notes that doctors may diagnose jaundice in infants if the bilirubin levels increase to 5 mg/dl per day or more than 0.2 mg/dl per hour.

These ranges may differ between laboratories. How far above the normal range a person’s levels will help a doctor determine the best course of treatment.

Doctors will most likely start with the person’s history and a physical exam to diagnose jaundice. They may later also order lab tests.

During an examination, they will pay close attention to the abdomen, liver, and skin.

The doctor may often include lab tests to help determine the underlying cause of jaundice. These include:

  • Bilirubin tests: A high level of unconjugated bilirubin compared to levels of conjugated bilirubin suggest hemolytic jaundice.
  • Full blood count (FBC) or complete blood count (CBC): This measures levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
  • Hepatitis A, B, and C tests: This tests for a range of liver infections.

The doctor will also examine the structure of the liver if they suspect an obstruction. In these cases, they will use imaging tests, including MRI, CT, and ultrasound scans.

In addition, they may carry out an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP). This is a procedure combining endoscopy and X-ray imaging.

The AAFP states that a healthcare professional may perform a liver biopsy. A liver biopsy can check for inflammation, cirrhosis, cancer, and fatty liver. This test involves inserting a needle into the liver to obtain a tissue sample. A healthcare professional will then examine the sample under the microscope.

Jaundice is the yellowing of the skin, mucous membranes, and whites of the eyes. It is a symptom of an underlying condition or health concern that involves the liver.

It occurs when the liver cannot keep up with the demand to process waste in the blood or when the liver becomes damaged. Several conditions can cause liver issues and result in jaundice.

Treatment for jaundice typically involves treating the underlying condition.

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