What is Jaundice?

Jaundice is not an illness, but a medical condition in which too much bilirubin – a compound produced by the breakdown of hemoglobin from red blood cells – is circulating in the blood. This excess of bilirubin causes the skin, eyes, and the mucus membranes (inside of the mouth) to turn a yellowish color. This yellowish color is due to the bilirubin dissolving in the fat layer just below the skin.

Jaundice is common in newborn babies and will usually clear without treatment. However, for adults the symptoms of jaundice usually indicate damage to the liver. If the cause of the jaundice is not treated, liver failure can result.

What Causes Jaundice?

Jaundice may be caused by a number of factors such as:

  • An obstruction of the bile duct, often due to a tumor or gallstone
  • Hepatitis: an inflammation of the liver
  • Biliary stricture: a narrowing of the duct that transports bile from the liver to the small intestine
  • Cirrhosis: a slowly progressing disease in which healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, eventually preventing the liver from functioning properly
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Inadequate blood flow to the liver
  • Congenital disorders involving bilirubin
  • Malaria: a serious and sometimes fatal disease in humans caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes

What are the Symptoms Often Accompanying Jaundice?

  • Yellow discoloring of the skin, whites of the eyes (sclera), and mucus membranes
  • Dark urine
  • Nausea
  • Itching
  • Light-colored stool (gray or yellow)
  • Abdominal pain or swelling

How is Jaundice Diagnosed?

A diagnosis of jaundice is made based on a physical examination as well as observation by your doctor. However, because the condition has a number of possible causes, your doctor will likely order any of the following tests for adults:

  • Serum bilirubin: A test that measures the concentration of bilirubin in the blood.
  • Complete blood count: A series of blood tests that provides information about the components of blood including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
  • Prothrombin time: A test that measures the blood’s clotting ability
  • Abdominal ultrasound: An abdominal ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce a “picture” called a sonogram. A sonogram of the liver will show whether it is swollen or abnormal.
  • Liver biopsy: A test where a small sample of the liver’s tissue is removed and then analyzed in a laboratory.

How is Jaundice Treated?

Since jaundice is a symptom, not a specific disorder, treatment for it depends on its cause. This can range from the removal of gallstones or tumors to antibiotics to treat infections, to liver transplant in cases where the liver is severely damaged. However, for conditions like cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis, which are lifelong problems, jaundice may be permanent or recurring.

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