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.
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's called unconjugated jaundice due to increased levels of bilirubin caused by:
During production of bilirubin, jaundice can be caused by:
After bilirubin is produced, jaundice may be caused by obstruction (blockage) of the bile ducts from:
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:
If jaundice isn't 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:
Doctors diagnose jaundice by checking for signs of liver disease such as:
Urinalysis (urine testing) that's positive for bilirubin shows that the patient has conjugated jaundice. The findings of urinalysis should be confirmed by serum testing. The serum testing will include a complete blood count (CBC) and bilirubin levels.
Your doctor will also do an exam to determine the size and tenderness of your liver. He or she may use imaging (ultrasonography and computer tomographic (CT) scanning) and liver biopsy (taking a sample of the liver) to further confirm diagnosis.
Jaundice usually doesn't require treatment in adults (it's a more severe problem in infants). The causes and complications of jaundice can be treated. For instance, if itching is bothersome, it may be eased by cholestyramine (Questran®).
Since there are many causes of jaundice, it's hard to provide specific prevention measures. Some general tips include:
During the production of bilirubin, middle-aged women and men, in general, are more affected. People who have hepatitis and drink excessive alcohol are also at increased risk.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/23/2018.