Jaundice definition and facts
Jaundice is a yellowish discoloration of the skin, mucous membranes and of the white of the eyes caused by elevated levels of the chemical 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 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 after effects).
What causes jaundice in adults?
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 then 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 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
What Are the Symptoms of Jaundice (Hyperbilirubinemia)?
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.
What are pre-hepatic (liver) causes of jaundice?
Jaundice caused during the pre-hepatic phase is due to the excessive
destruction (hemolysis) of red blood cells from various conditions. This rapid
increase in bilirubin levels in the bloodstream overwhelms the liver's capability
to properly metabolize the bilirubin, and consequently the levels of
unconjugated bilirubin increase. Conditions which can lead to an increase in the
hemolysis of red blood cells include:
What are hepatic (liver) causes of jaundice?
Jaundice caused during the hepatic phase can arise from abnormalities in the
metabolism and/or excretion of bilirubin. This can lead to an increase in both
unconjugated and/or conjugated bilirubin levels. Conditions with a hepatic
cause of jaundice include:
- Acute or chronic
hepatitis (commonly viral
C, D, E] or alcohol related),
Cirrhosis (caused by various conditions),
- Drugs or other toxins,
- Crigler-Najjar syndrome,
- Autoimmune disorders,
- Gilbert's syndrome, and
What are post-hepatic (liver) causes of jaundice?
Jaundice from a post-hepatic cause arises from a disruption (an obstruction)
in the normal drainage and excretion of conjugated bilirubin in the form of bile
from the liver into the intestine. This leads to increased levels of conjugated
bilirubin in the bloodstream. Conditions that can cause post-hepatic jaundice
What are the signs and symptoms of jaundice in adults?
As already mentioned, jaundice is not a disease, but rather a visible sign of
an underlying disease process. Individuals with jaundice will have a yellow
discoloration of the skin to varying degrees, and may also exhibit yellowing of
the mucous membranes and of the white of the eyes. However, depending on the
underlying cause of jaundice, individuals may experience different symptoms.
Some individuals may have very few, if any, symptoms at all, while others may
experience more severe and pronounced symptoms. Individuals with jaundice may
experience any of the following signs and symptoms
- pale-colored stools,
- dark-colored urine,
nausea and vomiting,
- weight loss,
loss of appetite,
- swelling of the legs, and
- swelling and distension of the abdomen due to the accumulation of fluid
What are the risk factors for jaundice in adults?
The risk factors for developing jaundice vary based upon the underlying
cause. Certain individuals with hereditary conditions (for example, thalassemia
or hereditary spherocytosis) are at an increased risk of developing jaundice
from hemolysis. Individuals who consume alcohol heavily are at an increased risk
of developing alcoholic hepatitis, pancreatitis, and cirrhosis leading to
jaundice. People who are at an increased risk of exposure to the different types
of viral hepatitis (for example, hepatitis B and hepatitis C) are also at risk
of developing jaundice at the time of infection or subsequently if liver disease
occurs or if liver cancer develops later.
What exams and tests diagnose jaundice in adults?
The presence of jaundice requires a comprehensive medical evaluation to determine the cause. Initially, your health-care professional will take a detailed history of your illness and perform a physical exam, which can sometimes determine the cause of the jaundice. Initial blood testing will also be undertaken, with special attention being given to your liver function tests, complete blood count (CBC), electrolyte panel and lipase levels. Blood testing for exposure to hepatitis may also be ordered. Additional blood testing may be ordered based on the initial results. A urinalysis will likely also be ordered.
Depending on the results of initial blood tests, further studies may be needed to help diagnose the underlying disease process. In certain cases, imaging studies will need to be obtained in order to evaluate for any abnormalities of the liver, gallbladder and pancreas. These imaging studies may include
abdominal ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and cholescintigraphy (HIDA scan).
Occasionally, individuals will need further invasive testing to determine the cause of the jaundice. Procedures that may be ordered include endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) or a liver biopsy.
What is the treatment for jaundice in adults?
The treatment for jaundice depends entirely on the underlying cause. Once a
diagnosis has been established, the appropriate course of treatment can then be
initiated. Certain patients will require hospitalization, whereas others may be
managed as outpatients at home.
- In certain individuals with jaundice, the treatment will consist of
supportive care and can be managed at home. For example, most cases of mild
viral hepatitis can be managed at home with watchful waiting and close
monitoring by your doctor (expectant management). Novel medications for
hepatitis C now can offer a cure for this condition.
- Alcohol cessation is necessary in patients with cirrhosis, alcoholic
hepatitis, or acute pancreatitis secondary to alcohol use.
- Jaundice caused by drugs/medications/toxins requires discontinuation of the
offending agent. In cases of intentional or unintentional
(Tylenol) overdose, the antidote N-acetylcysteine (Mucomyst) may be required.
- Various medications may be used to treat the conditions leading to
jaundice, such as steroids in the treatment of some autoimmune disorders.
Certain patients with cirrhosis, for example, may require treatment with
diuretics and lactulose.
- Antibiotics may be required for infectious causes of jaundice, or for the
complications associated with certain conditions leading to jaundice (for
- Blood transfusions may be required in individuals with
hemolysis or as a result of bleeding.
- Individuals with cancer leading to jaundice will require consultation with
an oncologist, and the treatment will vary depending on the type and extent
(staging) of the cancer.
- Surgery and various invasive procedures may be required for certain
patients with jaundice. For example, certain patients with gallstones may
require surgery. Other individuals with liver failure/cirrhosis may
What are the
complications of jaundice in adults?
The type of complication and the severity of complications vary with the
underlying cause leading to jaundice. Certain individuals will not suffer any
long-term after effects and will have a full recovery, while for others the
appearance of jaundice will be the first indication of a life-threatening
condition. A few of the potential complications include:
Can jaundice in adults be prevented?
Certain conditions leading to jaundice can be prevented, whereas others may
be less preventable. However, there are certain measures that can be taken in
order to decrease the risk of developing jaundice.
- Take medications as instructed in order to prevent potential liver damage
or unintentional overdose. Individuals with certain medical conditions
G6PD deficiency or cirrhosis) should avoid certain medications
altogether. Discuss medications with your health care professional.
- Avoid high-risk behaviors such as unprotected intercourse or intravenous
drug use, and implement universal precautions when working with blood products
and needles. This can decrease your risk of developing hepatitis B or hepatitis
- Consider being
vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B. There is
currently no available vaccine against hepatitis C.
- Avoid potentially contaminated food products or unsanitary water, as this
may decrease your risk of developing hepatitis A.
- When travelling to areas where malaria is endemic, take the recommended
precautions and prophylactic medications in order to prevent the development of
- Consume alcohol responsibly and only in moderation. This can prevent
alcoholic hepatitis, alcoholic cirrhosis and pancreatitis, among other
conditions. Certain individuals will need to avoid alcohol altogether.
smoking, as it is a risk factor for the development of pancreatic
cancer, as well as many other malignancies.
What is the prognosis for an adult with jaundice?
The prognosis for individuals with jaundice depends on the underlying cause of the condition. There are certain conditions that carry an excellent prognosis with individuals making a full recovery. However, more serious causes of jaundice can sometimes be fatal despite medical or surgical intervention. The development and severity of complications will also determine an individual's prognosis, as will a patient's underlying health and comorbidities (presence of other diseases). Therefore, a case-by-case assessment by your health care professional is necessary in order to determine a more accurate prognosis.
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.
Roche SP, Kobos R. Jaundice in the Adult Patient." American Family Physician.