Jaundice Overview

Premature baby in intensive care unit,UV light treatment of jaundice. See more pictures of skin problems.
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Donovan made being "mellow yellow" sound lovely in his 1966 classic tune of the same name, but literally turning yellow from jaundice isn't nice at all.

Although it isn't technically a disease, jaundice is a medical condition widely known for its ability to turn the skin and eyes yellow. This coloring is caused by an excess of the pigment bilirubin, which is created by the breakdown of old red blood cells.


Both infants and adults can get jaundice, and the condition means very different things for each group. For example, jaundice is quite common in infants, especially in premature babies. For newborns, the telltale yellow skin isn't serious; in fact, it usually means that their livers aren't yet strong enough to properly remove bilirubin from the blood [source: Mayo Clinic].

For adults, however, it could be a sign of liver disease, hepatitis, pancreatic cancer, malaria or other serious illnesses. These underlying causes often require immediate medical treatment. Because jaundice can be triggered by so many diseases, you should always seek a doctor's advice if you believe you have the condition [source: Kaneshiro].

Infants with mild jaundice often don't require treatment, as the condition may disappear in two to three weeks. In more severe cases, light therapy, immunoglobulin transfusion or blood transfusion may be necessary [source: Mayo Clinic].

Treatment for adults varies on a case-by-case basis, since several different diseases can cause jaundice. A doctor normally will run several tests to determine the exact cause of the condition. These may include testing the amount of bilirubin in the blood; analyzing the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets present in the blood; testing the blood's clotting ability; performing an abdominal ultrasound and completing a liver biopsy [source: WebMD]. Results of these tests can help pinpoint the cause of jaundice, which is frequently a symptom of more serious illnesses in adults.

To read about how jaundice affects infants, visit the next page.

In most cases, infants with jaundice aren't in any serious trouble. In fact, the condition is pretty common in newborns, especially those born before the 36th week of pregnancy [source: Mayo Clinic]. This is because the liver isn't fully developed enough to properly treat the bilirubin as needed; treatment often isn't necessary. As long as the infant is fed frequently and monitored for jaundice during the first few days of life, the risk of developing a more serious condition is quite low [source: Kaneshiro]. Jaundice usually occurs within two to three days of the baby's birth [source: Mayo Clinic].

Although doctors often can base their diagnosis on the baby's appearance, they can also find jaundice by testing the infant's blood or by using a special light to inspect the skin [source: Mayo Clinic].

Babies who aren't born with jaundice can develop it for other reasons. Like in serious adult cases, this type of jaundice normally is caused by an underlying complication like internal bleeding, blood infection, liver malfunction or abnormal red blood cells [source: Mayo Clinic]. In these situations, the yellowing of the skin can show up much earlier or much later in life than normal infant jaundice.

Serious cases of jaundice, lack of treatment and complications can lead to cerebral palsy, deafness and even brain damage if bilirubin levels get too high [source: Kaneshiro].

To read about how jaundice affects adults, go to the following page.

Although it's harmless to infants, adult jaundice can be a symptom of one of many serious medical conditions. Several diseases that involve the liver can contribute to jaundice in adults, since the condition is due to the buildup of bilirubin, which a normal adult liver should be able to process without trouble.

The problem may be a breakdown or blockage in the process that normally expels bilirubin from the body, such as a bile duct obstruction caused by a tumor or gallstones [source: HealthSquare]. However, it can be a sign of a potentially deadly disease.

Cirrhosis of the liver is one illness that doctors can diagnose after an adult shows signs of jaundice. The condition can be caused by hepatitis C, a fatty liver, alcohol abuse or liver damage [source: WebMD]. In addition to jaundice, other symptoms of cirrhosis include loss of appetite, fatigue, bruises and fluid retention. In severe cases -- and if other treatments don't relieve symptoms -- a liver transplant may be necessary.

Those who have hepatitis A, B or C may show signs of jaundice after contracting one of the diseases. Hepatitis A, which you can get from contaminated food or water or through personal contact, can present itself as a flu-like sickness. The more serious hepatitis B, contracted through the blood and bodily fluids of an infected person, can become a chronic liver infection. Hepatitis C, which also can cause liver failure, may have no symptoms at all [source: Mayo Clinic]. Other serious medical conditions, like malaria or pancreatic cancer, also can cause jaundice in adults.

Read the next page to find out more about the symptoms of jaundice.

In general, yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes is an easily identifiable sign of jaundice. Parents should begin checking infants for jaundice symptoms a few days after birth. Skin discoloration may be most obvious in the baby's face at first and can progress to the eyes, chest, abdomen, arms and legs as it worsens [source: Mayo Clinic].

To check the skin color of an infant, press a finger gently into the skin; if it's yellow, the baby likely has jaundice. Other symptoms of jaundice can include extreme tiredness and lack of appetite in newborns. Hospitals routinely check for the condition before babies can go home with their parents.

Adults also may notice more than just yellowing skin and eyes if they have jaundice. Although an underlying condition may determine what other symptoms you notice, common signs include dark urine and pale stools [source: HealthSquare]. If you experience intense abdominal pain or a fever, seek immediate medical attention.

Visit the next page to read about treatments available to eliminate jaundice.

Proper treatment of jaundice often depends on the underlying condition that caused the symptom to appear in the first place. Once that condition is properly treated, the skin will return to its normal color. For pre-term infants, there often is no required treatment; the liver is simply allowed to mature. The jaundice disappears once the organ is capable of handling a normal amount of bilirubin.

For more severe cases of infant jaundice, additional treatment may be necessary. Light therapy, which involves placing the infant under a special blue-green spectrum light, can help the baby's body to rid itself of excess bilirubin. Infants whose jaundice is due to the difference in blood type between baby and mother may need an immunoglobulin transfusion. As a last resort, a blood transfusion may be used if the condition doesn't respond to other treatments [source: Mayo Clinic].

In adults, jaundice itself can't be treated; the underlying cause must be addressed in order to rid the skin of its yellow coloring. Because jaundice in adults can be caused by a variety of conditions, treatments vary widely. To treat cirrhosis of the liver, for example, avoiding alcohol and taking certain medications can help improve the disease, although there is no cure. For different hepatitis strains, a doctor may prescribe medications and monitor the liver's condition.

To learn more about jaundice, visit the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


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