What is Jaundice?

Jaundice is a condition that causes yellowing of the skin and mucus membranes around the eyes. Patients who display these symptoms usually have some underlying medical condition that is causing their bile ducts, gallbladder, liver or pancreas to malfunction. The color is caused by misdirected or leaky bile in the human body (called bilirubin), which is a yellow color. See a doctor if you notice any jaundice symptoms. Jaundice is often reported in infants and newborns, as well as adults with medical complications.

What Causes Jaundice?

Bile is primarily a byproduct of dying red blood cells. Red blood cells die and have to be replenished every day. It is the liver’s job to get rid of these old cells. Therefore, bile is created in the liver, which also decomposes the bile and prepares it to be expelled from the body in stool. Some bile is stored in the gallbladder until it is needed for digestion, regulation and other purposes. When this process is faulty and an excess of bile builds up inside your digestive system, jaundice occurs. Such faults can include an abnormally high rate of red blood cell death, a damaged or overwhelmed liver or blockages in the ducts between the liver and gallbladder that prevent bile from traveling properly. It can also mean that parts of your organs are infected or that you’ve developed a condition such as gallstones or cancer.

What are some Jaundice Symptoms?

Patients with jaundice don’t always experience symptoms of jaundice immediately. In fact, jaundice symptoms may take a long time to appear. Usually, the eyes will begin by looking slightly off-white, then yellow—and then brown when the jaundice has developed fully and is becoming worse. Yellowing of the eyes is the most indicative jaundice symptom, so if you do not notice a change in color here, you probably do not have jaundice. Skin located inside the patients’ mouths and external skin will look yellow, too. Oftentimes, urine will look dark brown while stool, on the other hand, looks oddly pale in color. Depending on the cause of the jaundice, you may also display other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting in patients with hepatitis or weight loss in patients who have developed cancer.

How is Jaundice Diagnosed?

A simple physical examination will reveal whether large organs such as your liver are swollen and may be causing biliary malfunction. There are tests that a doctor can order as well, including a bilirubin blood test, hepatitis virus panel, tests to determine if the liver is healthy and medical imaging tests like CT scan and ultrasound. In more severe causes, endoscopy can also give doctors a closer look with procedures such as ERCP and endoscopic biopsy, and can provide a potential for treatment, especially if obstruction is the cause of the jaundice.


Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014