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Biliary Atresia


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2020| Content last modified Apr 2020
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Bile is a thick, greenish-yellow digestive fluid made in your liver. It helps your body break down and absorb fat in your diet. Bile is stored in the gallbladder until it's needed in the intestines. Bile travels from the liver and gallbladder to the intestine through tubes called bile ducts.

What is biliary atresia?

"Biliary" refers to the gallbladder and bile ducts. "Atresia" is a birth defect in which an opening or passage is narrow or blocked.

In biliary atresia, your baby’s bile ducts are narrow and soon become blocked.

  • Because bile can’t flow normally, it collects in the liver causing severe liver damage

  • Symptoms include yellow skin, dark urine, pale stool, and a larger liver

  • To treat this problem, doctors do surgery to create new bile ducts

  • Doctors don't know why biliary atresia develops, but it often happens along with other birth defects

What are the symptoms of biliary atresia?

Symptoms start about 2 weeks after birth. Symptoms of biliary atresia include:

  • Dark-colored urine

  • Pale-colored stool

  • The baby's skin takes on a yellowish color (jaundice)

  • The baby's liver gets larger

Once your baby is 2 or 3 months old, symptoms include:

  • Slow growth

  • Fussiness

  • Large veins visible on the baby's belly

  • An unusually large spleen (a small organ that helps filter infections and viruses out of your blood)

How can doctors tell if my baby has biliary atresia?

To tell if your baby has biliary atresia, doctors will do a physical exam and:

  • A blood test

  • A test with a radioactive tracer (doctors look for a blockage by injecting a tracer into your baby’s arm and tracking it as it flows through the digestive system)

  • Ultrasound of the belly

  • Sometimes, surgery

How do doctors treat biliary atresia?

Doctors will treat biliary atresia with:

  • Surgery to make a path for bile to drain from the liver

  • A liver transplant—many children with biliary atresia will need a transplant whether or not they had other surgery

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