Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eyes. This condition forms when there is too much bilirubin in your system. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment that is formed by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. Normally, the liver gets rid of bilirubin along with old red blood cells.
Jaundice can indicate a serious problem with the function of your liver, gallbladder, or pancreas.
Yellow-tinted skin and eyes characterize jaundice. In more severe cases, the whites of your eyes may turn brown. You may also have dark urine and pale stools.
If an underlying health condition such as hepatitis is to blame for jaundice, you might experience other symptoms, such as excessive fatigue and vomiting.
Some people misdiagnose themselves when they experience yellow skin. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), patients who have jaundice usually have both yellow-colored skin and eyes. If you only have yellow skin, you may simply have too much beta-carotene in your system (NIH, 2011). Beta-carotene is an antioxidant found in carrots and pumpkin. An overdose of this antioxidant is not a cause of jaundice.
Old red blood cells travel to your liver, where they’re broken down. Bilirubin is the yellow pigment formed by the liver’s breakdown of these old cells. Jaundice occurs when your liver doesn’t break down bilirubin the way it is supposed to.
Your liver might be damaged and unable to perform this process. Sometimes, the bilirubin simply can’t make it to your digestive tract to be eventually removed through your stool. In other cases, there may be too much bilirubin trying to enter the liver at once or too many red blood cells dying at one time.
Jaundice in adults is often indicative of:
- alcohol abuse
- liver cancer
- cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
- gallstones (cholesterol stones made of hardened fat (lipid) material or pigment stones made of bilirubin)
- hepatitis (swelling of the liver that decreases its ability to function)
- pancreatic cancer
- parasites in the liver
- blood disorders, such as hemolytic anemia (a decreased amount of red blood cells in the body, which leads to fatigue and weakness)
- an adverse reaction to or overdose of a medication, such as acetaminophen
Jaundice is also a frequent occurrence in newborns, especially in babies who are born prematurely. An excess of bilirubin may develop in these newborns because their livers haven’t fully developed yet.
Your doctor will first conduct blood tests to determine the cause of your jaundice. A blood test can not only determine the total amount of bilirubin in your body, but it can also help detect indicators of other diseases such as hepatitis.
Other diagnostic tests may be used, including:
- liver function tests: a series of blood tests that measure levels of certain proteins and enzymes that the liver produces when it is healthy and when it is damaged
- imaging tests: includes abdominal ultrasounds (using high-frequency sound waves to generate images of your internal organs), computed tomography (CT) scan, and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests
- liver biopsies: a small piece of liver tissue is removed for testing and microscopic examination
The severity of jaundice in newborns is generally diagnosed with a blood test. A small blood sample is taken by pricking the infant’s toe. Your pediatrician will recommend treatment if the results indicate moderate to severe jaundice.
The type of treatment your doctor recommends for jaundice depends on the underlying cause. Mild cases may go away without treatment. However, severe cases can eventually damage the brain. Your doctor will work at treating the cause of the jaundice, not the symptom itself. Once treatment begins, your yellow skin will likely diminish.
According to the American Liver Foundation, most jaundice cases in infants resolve within one to two weeks (American Liver Foundation, 2011).
Moderate jaundice is treated with phototherapy (light therapy) in the hospital or home to help remove excess bilirubin.
The light waves used in phototherapy are absorbed by your baby’s skin and blood. The light helps your baby’s body to change the bilirubin into waste products to be eliminated. Frequent bowel movements with greenish stools are a common side effect of this therapy. This is just the bilirubin exiting the body. Phototherapy may involve the use of a lighted pad, called a biliblanket, which mimics natural sunlight and is placed on your baby’s skin.
Severe cases of jaundice are treated with blood transfusions (injections of donor blood) to remove bilirubin.
Jaundice usually clears up when the underlying cause is treated. Outlook depends on your overall condition. See your doctor right away to improve your chances of a quick recovery. Mild cases of jaundice in newborns tend to go away on their own without treatment and cause no lasting liver issues.