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Jaundice in Adults


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Reviewed/Revised Apr 2023
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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.

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)

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's normally white)

  • Itching all over the body

  • Dark urine (pee) and light-colored stool (poop)

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:

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, your doctor can prescribe a medicine that may help.

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

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