Jaundice is caused by too much bilirubin in the blood. This is a yellow brown 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.

Too much bilirubin can build up in the blood due to problems, such as:

  • An excess breakdown of red blood cells, which can occur in:
    • Certain forms of anemia
    • Some infectious diseases, such as 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
    • Pregnancy
  • Liver damage caused by:
    • Viral hepatitis
    • Cirrhosis
    • Alcohol use disorder
    • Certain medicines or toxins
  • Inherited metabolic disorders, such as Gilbert, Crigler-Nager, and Dubin-Johnson syndromes

In babies, it can be caused by the lack of a certain liver enzyme during the first two weeks of life.

Liver, Gallbladder, and Bile duct
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Risk Factors

Factors that may increase the risk of jaundice are similar to those for liver and gallbladder disorders. They may include:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Substance use disorder
  • Taking medicines that may harm the liver
  • Exposure to hepatitis A, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C
  • Exposure to certain industrial chemicals



Jaundice may be a sign of another health problem. In addition to jaundice, a person may also have other symptoms. Problems may be:

  • Fatigue
  • Itching
  • Fever or chills
  • Unexplained weight loss


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done.

Blood and urine tests will be done to check bilirubin levels.

Pictures of the liver may be taken. This can be done with:

  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan

A sample of the liver may be taken. This can be done with a biopsy.

Other tests may also be done to look for a cause.



Jaundice in adults that is not causing problems may not need treatment. The doctor will watch for any changes.

Jaundice in newborns is common and also usually gets better without treatment. If bilirubin levels rise above a certain level, the baby may receive phototherapy, which is treatment with a special ultraviolet light.

In others, the cause of jaundice will need to be treated. This may include treating infections or liver damage, or removing blockages in or near the liver.


Prevention depends on the cause of the jaundice. General steps include:

  • Limiting alcohol
  • Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise
  • Taking medicines safely
  • Avoiding toxins
  • Taking steps to prevent hepatitis A, B, and C

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.