Jaundice in Adults

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Jaundice definition

Jaundice is a yellowish discoloration of the skin, mucous membranes and of the white of the eyes caused by elevated levels of bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinemia). The term jaundice is derived from the French word jaune, which means yellow. Jaundice is not a disease per se, but rather a visible sign of an underlying disease process. Jaundice is typically seen when the level of bilirubin in the blood exceeds 2.5-3 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter).

Jaundice in adults

Jaundice in adults can be caused by a variety of medical conditions, some of which are serious and potentially life-threatening. Any adult who develops jaundice needs to undergo a comprehensive medical evaluation in order to determine its cause. Neonatal jaundice, a condition seen in newborns, is most often a benign condition that improves without serious aftereffects (sequelae).

What causes jaundice in adults?

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Jaundice in adults is caused by various medical conditions that affect the normal metabolism or excretion of bilirubin. Bilirubin is mostly formed from the daily breakdown and destruction of red blood cells in the bloodstream, which release hemoglobin as they rupture. The heme portion of this hemoglobin molecule is then converted into bilirubin, which is transported in the bloodstream to the liver for further metabolism and excretion. In the liver, the bilirubin is conjugated (made more water soluble), and is excreted into the gallbladder (where it is stored) and into the intestines. In the intestines, a portion of the bilirubin is excreted in the feces, while some is metabolized by the intestinal bacteria and excreted in the urine.

Jaundice occurs if there is a dysfunction of the normal metabolism or excretion of bilirubin. This disruption in the metabolism or excretion of bilirubin can occur at various stages, and it is therefore useful to classify the different causes of jaundice based on the where the dysfunction occurs. The causes of jaundice are generally classified as pre-hepatic (the problem arises before secretion to the liver), hepatic (the problem arises within the liver), and post-hepatic (the problem arises after bilirubin is excreted from the liver).

Picture of the liver and where it is located in the abdomen
Picture of the liver and where it is located in the abdomen
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/6/2014

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Jaundice Symptoms

What Are the Symptoms of Jaundice?

Jaundice, also referred to as icterus, is the yellow staining of the skin and sclerae (the whites of the eyes) by abnormally high blood levels of the bile pigment, bilirubin. The yellowing extends to other tissues and body fluids and also may turn the urine dark. Yellowing of only the skin also can be caused by eating too many carrots or drinking too much carrot juice.


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