What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a condition in which the skin, sclera (whites of the eyes) and mucous membranes turn yellow. This yellow color is caused by a high level of bilirubin, a yellow-orange bile pigment. Bile is fluid secreted by the liver. Bilirubin is formed from the breakdown of red blood cells.

What causes jaundice?

Jaundice can be caused by a problem in any of the three phases in bilirubin production.

Before the production of bilirubin, you may have what is called unconjugated jaundice due to increased levels of bilirubin caused by:

  • Reabsorption of a large hematoma (a collection of clotted or partially clotted blood under the skin)
  • Hemolytic anemias (blood cells are destroyed and removed from the bloodstream before their normal lifespan is over)

During production of bilirubin, jaundice can be caused by:

  • Viruses, including Hepatitis A, chronic Hepatitis B and C, and Epstein-Barr virus infection (infectious mononucleosis)
  • Alcohol
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Rare genetic metabolic defects
  • Medicines, including acetaminophen toxicity, penicillins, oral contraceptives, chlorpromazine (Thorazine®) and estrogenic or anabolic steroids

After bilirubin is produced, jaundice may be caused by obstruction (blockage) of the bile ducts from:

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

Sometimes, the person may not have symptoms of jaundice, and the condition may be found accidentally. The severity of symptoms depends on the underlying causes and how quickly or slowly the disease develops.

If you have a short-term case of jaundice (usually caused by infection), you may have the following symptoms and signs:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Abdominal pain
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Change in skin color
  • Dark-colored urine and/or clay-colored stool

If jaundice is not caused by an infection, you may have symptoms such as weight loss or itchy skin (pruritus). If the jaundice is caused by pancreatic or biliary tract cancers, the most common symptom is abdominal pain. Sometimes, you may have jaundice occurring with liver disease if you have:

  • Chronic hepatitis or inflammation of the liver
  • Pyoderma gangrenosum (a type of skin disease)
  • Acute hepatitis A, B or C
  • Polyarthralgias (inflammation of the joints)

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