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Quick Facts

Jaundice in Adults

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a yellow color to your skin and the whites of your eyes.

  • Jaundice is caused by a buildup of a substance called bilirubin

Bilirubin is a yellow substance your body makes when it breaks down old or damaged red blood cells. Your liver processes the bilirubin in order to remove it from your body. It removes the bilirubin by mixing it into bile, a digestive juice, and putting it into your intestines.

Jaundice can happen if something goes wrong in your liver or in the tubes that carry bile to the intestines. Bilirubin builds up in your body and makes you turn yellow.

  • If you have jaundice, see a doctor soon—jaundice can be a sign of a serious problem like liver damage

  • Hepatitis from a virus is a common cause of jaundice, particularly in young and healthy people

  • Some people with jaundice itch all over—medicine may help relieve the itching

Jaundice by itself doesn't cause serious symptoms, but it can be a sign of other problems. Jaundice in newborns is different and can cause serious problems for babies.

What causes jaundice?

Jaundice can happen if:

  • Too many red blood cells break down at once

  • Your liver is damaged and can't process bilirubin properly

  • Something blocks your bile ducts (tubes that carry bile from your liver to your intestines)

Common causes of liver damage include hepatitis, alcoholic liver disease, and sometimes certain drugs.

Common causes of blocked bile ducts include gallstones and tumors.

In older people, jaundice is usually caused by blocked bile ducts, and the blockage is more likely to be cancer. Doctors suspect cancer when older people with jaundice also have:

  • Weight loss

  • No abdominal pain

  • A lump in the belly

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

  • Yellow skin

  • Yellow eyes (the part that is normally white)

  • Itching all over the body

  • Dark urine and light-colored stool

Some diseases that cause jaundice may also cause:

  • Belly pain

  • Tiredness

When should I see a doctor?

See a doctor as soon as possible if you have jaundice and these warning signs:

  • Severe belly pain and tenderness

  • Changes in mental function, such as tiredness, nervousness, or confusion

  • Blood in your stool (poop) or tarry, black stool

  • Throwing up blood

  • Fever

  • A tendency to bruise or bleed easily, sometimes resulting in a reddish purple rash of tiny dots or larger splotches

In older people, the warning signs may be milder or harder to recognize.

People with no warning signs who think they may have jaundice should see a doctor within a few days.

What will happen at my doctor visit?

Doctors will ask questions about your symptoms and health history and do a physical exam. The answers from your history and physical exam will help them figure out the cause of your jaundice. They will order tests if needed.

What tests will I need?

Doctors may do tests such as:

  • Blood tests to check your liver function and see if the liver is damaged

  • Imaging tests such as ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI

  • Sometimes, liver biopsy or laparoscopy depending on what's causing your liver problem

  • Sometimes, other blood tests to check for the problem causing your jaundice

With a liver biopsy, the doctor will put a needle in your right side to take out a sample of your liver to look at under a microscope. With laparoscopy, the doctor will make a small cut in your belly and put a thin viewing tube through the cut to look at your organs.

How do doctors treat jaundice?

Doctors will treat the underlying problem.

Itching usually slowly disappears as the liver improves. If itching is severe, taking a medicine that lowers bilirubin levels may help.

If the cause is a blocked bile duct, a flexible viewing tube (endoscope) will be used to open it.

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