Black people experience yellow skin as a symptom of jaundice, but it may be difficult to see at first, depending on your skin tone. It’s easier to spot the whites of your eyes turning yellow, but that could also be due to a benign cause.
Jaundice is the yellowing of your skin and eyes. It’s usually due to a problem with your liver or another underlying condition.
Jaundice occurs when you have too much bilirubin, a yellow pigment, in your blood. The layer of fat under your skin absorbs this excess bilirubin, causing a yellow appearance. This also occurs in the whites of your eyes.
It might be difficult to detect a yellowish skin appearance depending on a person’s skin tone. Black people have a variety of skin tones, and if you have a darker skin tone, jaundice may be more challenging to see. You’re more likely to first notice signs of jaundice in your eyes.
But people with dark skin often experience other causes of yellow eyes. Read on to learn more about how to recognize jaundice if you have black or brown skin and how to distinguish it from other conditions.
Regardless of your skin tone, the primary symptoms of jaundice are the yellowing of:
- your skin
- the whites of your eyes (sclera)
- your bodily fluids
If you have a darker skin tone, it may be difficult to notice any yellowing. You may first notice yellowing of the sclera or bodily fluids.
Jaundice is a symptom of several underlying conditions. You may experience other symptoms related to the underlying condition. Symptoms common to some of these conditions include:
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- brown or dark urine
- pale stools
Yellow eyes do not always mean jaundice
The white part of your eye (sclera) has a thin protective layer called the conjunctiva. When the conjunctiva degenerates (due to exposure or age), it can cause the sclera to appear more yellow or even brown. This is more common in people with melanin-rich skin, like people of African or Asian descent.
This is a benign condition, meaning it does not negatively affect your health. Consider seeing a doctor or ophthalmologist if you are concerned about yellow eyes with other symptoms.
The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that adults see a doctor right away if they notice yellow skin.
Jaundice in newborns is common, as their livers may not be developed enough to filter bilirubin properly.
It’s important to see a doctor the same day if you notice any of these additional symptoms occurring in your baby:
- difficulty sleeping or waking
- difficulty feeding
- not pooping or peeing enough
Older research suggests that Black babies are less likely to experience jaundice. But
As a result, Black babies with an increased risk of highly elevated bilirubin levels often do not receive a diagnosis soon enough. This causes them to be more likely to experience complications like kernicterus. Experts do not quite understand the reason for this, but genetics likely play a role.
Black babies with an increased risk of elevated bilirubin may have a genetic condition that’s not always screened for at birth. (More on that below.) More research is needed to understand the incidence of highly elevated bilirubin levels in Black babies and to develop best practices for screening.
Emergency jaundice symptoms in babies
Seek emergency medical care if you notice any of the following symptoms in your baby:
- persistent high-pitched crying
- arched body, with head and neck bent backward
- stiff or limp body
- unusual eye movements
Anyone can get jaundice, regardless of skin tone. The conditions that cause jaundice can affect people of all races. But Black people may have a greater risk for some of these diseases than people from other racial groups in part due to social and environmental factors.
Some of these conditions include:
Fatty liver disease
Black U.S. adults have
Hepatitis is inflammation of your liver, usually due to a virus. Not everyone with hepatitis will develop jaundice, but it may show up as a symptom later in the disease progression.
Sickle cell anemia
Bilirubin is a byproduct when red blood cells break down. People with sickle cell anemia have red blood cells that do not live as long and break down more easily. This causes a buildup of bilirubin, which leads to jaundice.
According to the American Red Cross, 98% of the U.S. population with some form of sickle cell disease are African American.
Gallstones are hard deposits of cholesterol or bilirubin. Sometimes they can enter your bile duct and block the flow of bile. This causes bile to build up in your liver, leading to jaundice.
Although Black people appear to be at lower risk overall for gallstones than other racial groups, they do have higher rates of certain risk factors. You’re
Liver, bile duct, or pancreatic cancer
According to the Office of Minority Health, people who identify as Black or African American are more likely than non-Hispanic white people to develop cancer in these organs.
Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency
G6PD deficiency is a genetic condition that lowers your G6PD blood levels. Without this important enzyme, red blood cells break down sooner than they should, resulting in a buildup of bilirubin.
The condition is more common in Africa, affecting
Despite the disease prevalence, newborn screening often does not include screening for G6PD deficiency.
More research is needed to look into this nutrient deficiency.
Because jaundice is a symptom of several possible illnesses, treating jaundice requires treating the underlying condition.
Jaundice will usually go away when you treat the underlying condition. But if you have chronic liver disease, your jaundice may not improve.
A doctor may recommend phototherapy to help with newborn jaundice. This special kind of light breaks down excess bilirubin to help your baby’s liver remove it from their blood.
Will jaundice go away on its own?
Jaundice in babies should go away within 2 weeks. Contact a doctor if it persists for longer.
Adult jaundice will usually require treating the underlying condition before symptoms go away.
Jaundice in adults is often a sign of a serious underlying condition. It may be more challenging for people with darker skin tones to detect a yellowing of their skin.
It may be easier to detect jaundice by spotting a yellow tint to the whites of your eyes. But be aware that people with melanin-rich skin may also have yellowish eyes due to aging. It’s important to consult a doctor to confirm what might be causing your eyes to look yellow.
Jaundice in babies is very common. Though Black babies seem to develop jaundice at lower rates, they may be at greater risk of extremely high bilirubin levels and complications like kernicterus.
Your baby’s pediatrician will usually monitor them for signs of jaundice for a few days.