What causes yellow eyes? 24 possible conditions

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What Are Yellow Eyes?

The white portion of the eye is known as the sclera. Healthy eye tissue should appear white. Certain conditions can cause the eyes and even the skin to appear yellow. Yellowing of the eyes is typically a result of dysfunction of the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas. In some instances yellow eyes can involve multiple organs.

Yellowing eyes are a symptom of a condition called jaundice. Jaundice occurs when the  oxygen-carrying components (hemoglobin) in the blood are broken down into bilirubin and the bilirubin is not cleared normally. Bilirubin is supposed to move to the liver and then to the bile ducts and then released in the stool. If any portion of this process doesn’t take place, the extra bilirubin builds up in the skin and causes it to appear yellow, including the eyes. This can indicate an underlying medical problem.  

What Conditions That Affect the Liver Cause Yellow Eyes?

The liver performs numerous important functions for the body, including breaking down red blood cells. Conditions that affect the liver’s functioning can lead to yellow eyes. Liver scarring (cirrhosis) commonly causes this to occur. Conditions that can cause cirrhosis include:

  • alcohol abuse
  • hepatitis, a viral infection of types A, B, C, D, and E
  • liver cancer
  • liver infection
  • non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition that commonly occurs in obese people

Doctors link some genetic conditions with causing cirrhosis. These conditions include hemochromatosis, which causes excess iron to collect in the liver and affect its function. Wilson’s disease causes excess copper buildup in the liver. Porphyria is another cause. This combination of genetic disorders causes the body to build up excess porphyrin. These compounds are needed to form hemoglobin.

In addition to yellow eyes, conditions that may affect the liver cause symptoms such as:

  • appetite loss
  • nausea
  • sudden weight loss
  • unexplained fatigue

What Conditions That Affect the Gallbladder Cause Yellow Eyes?

The liver produces bile that is collected in the gallbladder. The gallbladder is responsible for releasing bile to help the body digest fats. The gallbladder connects back to the liver via the bile ducts. People can experience jaundice if the bile ducts become blocked. This could be due to gallstones. Gallstones are the most common cause of bile duct obstruction. Other causes include cysts, tumors, or gallbladder inflammation.

In addition to yellow eyes, gallbladder obstruction causes symptoms such as:

  • bloody-appearing stool
  • chills
  • fever
  • stomach pain
  • unexplained weight loss

What Conditions That Affect the Pancreas Cause Yellow Eyes?

The pancreatic duct and the bile duct join to drain into the small intestine. If the pancreatic duct becomes diseased or obstructed, bile may not drain properly and jaundice can occur. Pancreatic cancer can cause this condition.

Excess bilirubin may also result in dark urine, light-colored stools and skin itching.

According to the American Cancer Society, pancreas-related jaundice symptoms are less common than gallstones, hepatitis, and liver disease.

What Blood Disorders Cause Yellow Eyes?

Eye yellowing may be the result of the abnormal breakdown of red blood cells and/or the impaired excretion of bilirubin. For this reason, conditions that affect red blood cell production or lifespan can cause eye yellowing. This includes:

  • drug-induced immune hemolytic anemia
  • incompatibility reaction from a blood transfusion, which is considered a medical emergency
  • sickle cell anemia

What Misconceptions Exist About the Causes of Yellow Eyes?

Consuming excess foods high in vitamin A (beta carotene) cause skin yellowing. These foods include carrots, squash and melons. These foods can affect the skin, but they should not cause yellow eyes. 

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Yellow Skin (Jaundice)

Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eyes and can indicate a serious problem with liver, gallbladder, or pancreas function.

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2

Hepatitis

Hepatitis is swelling and inflammation of the liver. It's usually caused by a viral infection. There are several types of hepatitis, including: A, B, C, D, and E. Symptoms may not occur until liver damage occurs.

Read more »

3

Cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is severe scarring and poor function of the liver caused by long-term exposure to toxins such as alcohol or viral infections. Certain medications and disorder can also cause cirrhosis.

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4

Alcoholic Liver Disease

Damage to the liver from excessive drinking can lead to ALD. Years of alcohol abuse cause the liver to become inflamed and swollen. This damage can also cause scarring known as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is the final stage o...

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5

Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disease that causes red blood cells to have an abnormal shape, causing blood flow problems. This can lead to tissue damage and pain, as well as enlarged spleen, anemia, and other symptoms.

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6

Drug-Induced Immune Hemolytic Anemia

Drug-induced immune hemolytic anemia (DIIHA) is a rare blood disorder in which your immune system begins attacking your red blood cells. Symptoms include dark urine, fast heartbeat, and jaundice.

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7

Biliary (Bile Duct) Obstruction

A biliary obstruction blocks the bile ducts, which carry bile to the small intestine for digestion and waste removal. An obstruction can be caused by many factors, including gallstones, inflammation, cysts, or tumors.

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8

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is cancer of the pancreas, an organ that secretes an enzyme that breaks down fats, carbs, and proteins. Pancreatic cancer can obstruct the outflow of bile from the liver and causes yellow skin.

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9

Liver Cancer

Liver cancer causes destruction of liver cells and interferes with the ability of the liver to function normally. Cancer that originates in the liver can spread from the liver to other parts of the body.

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10

Thalassemia

Thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder that results in excessive destruction of red blood cells (anemia). Symptoms depend on its severity, and can range from minor anemia to enlargement of organs or fetal death.

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11

Infectious Mononucleosis

Infectious mononucleosis, often called "mono," is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). It typically occurs in teenagers, but you can get it at any age. The virus is spread through saliva, which is why some peopl...

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12

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is liver inflammation caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). HBV is one of five types of hepatitis virus. The others are hepatitis A, C, D, and E. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stat...

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13

Breast Milk Jaundice

Jaundice, characterized by yellow-tinged skin and eyes, is common in the first week of your newborn's life. Occasionally jaundice will persist or re-emerge up to the sixth week in healthy, breastfed infants. Breast mil...

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14

G6PD Deficiency

The body needs adequate amounts of red and white blood cells to keep tissues oxygenated, fight infection, and maintain health. Enzymes are proteins that help regulate biochemical reactions and metabolism in the body an...

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15

Hepatitis E

The hepatitis E virus is transmitted via the intestinal tract and is not caused by the hep-A virus. It is spread most often by contaminated drinking water.

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16

Gallstones

Many people can develop gallstones and never know it. Gallstones are hard deposits in your gallbladder, a small organ that stores bile, a digestive fluid made in the liver. Gallstones may consist of cholesterol, salt...

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17

Hepatitis D

Hepatitis D, also known as the delta virus, is an infection that causes your liver to swell. It is caused by the hepatitis D virus (HDV) and is uncommon in the United States. Hepatitis D is one of many forms o...

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18

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a disease that causes inflammation and infection in the liver. This condition develops after being infected with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). There are two forms of hepatitis C: acute and chronic. Acut...

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19

Acute Pancreatitis

Chances are, you don't know a lot about your pancreas. But when the pancreas becomes inflamed, you're going to feel the pain. Acute pancreatitis is an inflammation in the pancreas, an organ found behind the stomach an...

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20

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by exposure to toxins, immune diseases, or infection. Viruses cause most cases of hepatitis. Hepatitis A is inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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