Yellowing of the eyes typically happens if you have jaundice.
Jaundice occurs when the oxygen-carrying components in the blood, called hemoglobin, break down into bilirubin and your body doesn’t clear the bilirubin.
Bilirubin is supposed to move from the liver to the bile ducts. Then, your body releases it in your poop. If any of this doesn’t happen, bilirubin builds up in your skin and makes it look yellow. This can also happen to your eyes.
The white portion of your eye is called the sclera. Healthy eye tissue looks white. Yellowing of the sclera might mean there’s an underlying health condition.
Yellowing of the eyes can happen if one or more of these organs aren’t working properly:
Conditions that affect the liver
The liver performs an important role in your body, including breaking down red blood cells. Conditions that affect the liver’s function can cause yellowing of the eyes.
Liver scarring (cirrhosis) is a common cause of liver dysfunction. Cirrhosis can be caused by:
Hepatitis A, D, and E can also cause jaundice, but they’re less common than hepatitis B and C.
Some genetic conditions are thought to cause cirrhosis, including:
- Hemochromatosis. This condition causes too much iron to collect in your liver. Primary hemochromatosis is inherited.
- Wilson’s disease. This rare disease causes too much copper to build up in your liver.
- Porphyrias. These are a group of rare blood disorders that cause too much porphyrins, compounds crucial to making red blood cells, to build up in the body.
You may experience one or more of the following symptoms along with yellow eyes if you have one of these conditions:
- appetite loss
- sudden weight loss
- unexplained fatigue
Conditions that affect the gallbladder
The liver produces bile that then collects in the gallbladder.
The gallbladder releases bile that helps your body digest fats. It also connects back to your liver through tubes called bile ducts.
Jaundice can happen if bile ducts are blocked because of:
- gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis)
Gallbladder blockages can also cause:
- abdominal pain
- unexplained weight loss
Conditions that affect the pancreas
The pancreas is an organ that produces hormones and enzymes. The duct that comes from your pancreas and the gallbladder’s bile duct join to drain into your small intestine.
If the pancreatic duct becomes inflamed, infected, or obstructed, bile may not drain properly. This can cause jaundice. Pancreatic cancer can also cause this condition.
Buildup of bilirubin can also make your pee darker, your poop paler, and cause your skin to get itchy.
However, jaundice from conditions that affect the pancreas aren’t very common.
Red blood cells not breaking down or bilirubin not being excreted properly can also make your eyes yellow. This is why conditions that affect how long your red blood cells live, or how they’re produced, can cause yellowing of the eyes.
- drug-induced immune hemolytic anemia
- an incompatibility reaction from a blood transfusion, which is considered a medical emergency
- sickle cell anemia
Treatment for jaundice and other causes of yellowing eyes depends on the underlying cause.
This type of jaundice happens when your body breaks down too many red blood cells and your liver can’t keep up with the sheer volume of bilirubin being produced, so it builds up in your body instead.
This happens before any damage is done to your liver. It’s caused by conditions like malaria and sickle cell anemia.
Your doctor will likely prescribe you medications to treat the cause or reduce symptoms. They may recommend a blood transfusion, rehydration through an intravenous (IV) line, or medications like hydroxyurea (Droxia, Hydrea) if it’s caused by sickle cell anemia.
This type of jaundice happens if your liver has already been damaged a bit. It’s commonly caused by infections, such as viral hepatitis, or by liver scarring.
Antiviral medications can help treat viral infections in your liver, removing the source of your jaundice and protecting you from other complications of a liver infection.
Liver scarring caused by drinking alcohol or exposure to chemicals or toxins that affect your liver can be treated by removing the source — reduce or stop drinking altogether, or find out what’s causing liver damage and remove yourself from that environment.
You may need a liver transplant if your liver’s been severely damaged. If there isn’t enough healthy liver tissue left, you may end up with liver failure if the liver isn’t replaced.
This type of jaundice happens if a bile duct is blocked, meaning that bilirubin and other waste substances can’t get out of the liver.
Surgery is the most common treatment for post-hepatic jaundice. This surgery is done by taking out the gallbladder, some of the bile duct, and a section of the pancreas.
Your doctor will likely suggest removing your gallbladder if your bile ducts are blocked, the gallbladder is inflamed, or the gallbladder is full of gallstones.
And, just in case you’re wondering, you can live without your gallbladder.
Seek medical attention as soon as possible if you notice any of the following symptoms along with yellowing of your eyes, as they may be signs of a serious condition:
- losing your appetite
- nose bleeding
- itchy skin
- feeling weak or exhausted
- losing weight for no apparent reason
- leg or abdominal swelling
- dark urine
- pale stools
- abnormal joint or muscle pain
- changes or darkening of skin color
- feeling sick
- throwing up
There are some misconceptions about what causes yellowing of the eyes. For example, the idea that eating certain foods can cause yellow eyes or that someone with yellow eyes has an alcohol use disorder.
Eating too many foods that are high in vitamin A (beta carotene) can cause yellowing of the skin. Some of these foods include carrots, squash, and melons — they can affect the skin, but they shouldn’t cause yellowing of the eyes.
Yellow eyes can only result from a buildup of bilirubin in your bloodstream because there’s too much of it or because your liver can’t process it.
There’s no research supporting the idea that putting too much of any substance into your body can cause it to back up into your bloodstream and make your eyes yellow.
It’s also a misconception that yellow eyes mean that someone overuses alcohol or is somehow unwell. Jaundice from alcoholic liver damage is only one of several possible causes.
Jaundice and other causes can indeed be signs of a health condition affecting your liver. But in some cases, it may be a temporary bilirubin buildup or a nutrient deficiency, as lacking vitamins like B-12 has been linked to yellowing of the eyes because of changes in red blood cell production.
Once the underlying issue is treated, yellow eyes often go away.
Yellow eyes are most likely a result of jaundice. Jaundice isn’t always a big deal, but some of its causes can be disruptive to your life or cause long-term complications.
See your doctor if you notice significant yellowing in your eyes, especially along with other symptoms like abdominal pain, fatigue, and fever, so that you can get the treatment you need.