Jaundice is caused by an excess of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow-brown colored substance in bile. Bile is a liquid that carries waste products and bilirubin away from the liver. It also helps break down fats in the small intestine. It is formed during the body's normal process of breaking down red blood cells.
There are several reasons why too much bilirubin can build up in the blood. They include:
Excess breakdown of red blood cells, which can occur in:
- Certain forms of anemia
- Some infectious diseases, like malaria
A blockage in or near the liver that prevents the flow of bile such as:
- Gallstones or pancreatitis
- A tumor in the liver or bile duct
- Pancreatic cancer
- Birth defects
Liver damage caused by:
- Viral hepatitis
- Alcohol use disorder
- Adverse effects of certain medications or environmental toxins
- In babies, insufficient amounts of a certain liver enzyme during the first 2 weeks of life
- Inherited metabolic disorders, including Gilbert , Crigler-Nager, and Dubin-Johnson syndromes
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Factors that may increase the chances of jaundice are similar to risk factors for liver and gallbladder disorders. They may include:
- Alcohol use disorder
- Using illicit drugs
- Taking medications that may harm the liver
- Exposure to hepatitis A , hepatitis B , or hepatitis C
- Exposure to certain industrial chemicals
Jaundice may indicate another condition or disease. In addition to jaundice, you may experience other symptoms. Symptoms may include:
- Fever or chills
- Unexplained weight loss
Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. In order to make a diagnosis on what is causing jaundice, your doctor may recommend tests. Tests may include:
- Blood tests
- CT scan
- ERCP test
- Liver biopsy
In most other types of jaundice, the specific condition causing it must be treated. There are many treatments that may be used for liver and gallbladder problems depending on the exact condition. They include:
- Avoiding substances that cause jaundice such as alcohol or medication
- Addressing the cause of anemia
- Taking medication to treat infectious diseases
Relieving bile duct obstructions by:
- Excising tumors
- Extracting gallstones
- Removing the gallbladder
- Treating pancreatitis
Mild jaundice in newborns is common and usually clears without treatment. If bilirubin levels rise above a certain level, the baby may receive phototherapy , which is treatment with a special ultraviolet light. In Gilbert syndrome, jaundice tends to clear without treatment.
Prevention depends on the disorder causing jaundice. You may not be able to prevent some of the disorders. However, you can take the steps below to decrease your chance of developing liver disease:
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Moderation is no more than 2 drinks per day for men or 1 drink per day for women.
- Be careful mixing alcohol with other medications such as acetaminophen .
- Avoid exposure to industrial chemicals.
- Do not use illicit drugs.
- Do not share needles or nasal snorting equipment.
- Practice safe sex.
- To decrease your risk of hepatitis A, get the hepatitis A vaccine .
- To decrease your risk of hepatitis B, get the hepatitis B vaccine .
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
Edits to original content made by Denver Health.
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