What is jaundice?

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

What causes jaundice?

Jaundice can be caused by a problem in any of the 3 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 bloodstream before their normal lifespan is over).

During production of bilirubin, some causes of jaundice are:

  • Viruses:
    • Hepatitis A
    • Chronic Hepatitis B and C
    • Epstein-Barr virus infection (infectious mononucleosis)
  • Alcohol
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Rare genetic metabolic defects
  • Medicines:

After bilirubin is produced, jaundice may be caused by:

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

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

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

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

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

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy