Jaundice is a condition that causes the skin, eyes, and mucus membranes to become yellow. It is a disorder that results from high levels of bilirubin in the blood. The condition itself is not a fatal condition; however, it can be a sign of extensive liver damage, which can be life-threatening. People can experience jaundice at any ages, from infants to adults.
What Is Jaundice?
Bilirubin is a yellow chemical found in the substance that carries oxygen in red blood cells known as hemoglobin. When red blood cells are broken down, new ones are formed while the old ones are processed in the liver. However, should the liver have any trouble handling the amount of old blood cells, bilirubin will begin to build up within the body, causing certain areas to become yellow.
Newborn jaundice is a common condition suffered by newborns. When in the womb, the mother processes the baby’s bilirubin. After birth, a newborn’s liver is unable to break down bilirubin fast enough, causing it to build up. Infant bilirubin can be caused by numerous factors:
- Newborns make more bilirubin than an adult due to a higher turnover rate of red blood cells.
- An infant’s liver may not be developed enough to adequately handle the amount of bilirubin being processed.
- Bilirubin may be reabsorbed from the intestine before it can be excreted through the baby’s stool.
The most common symptoms of jaundice include yellowing in the white part of the eyeballs, dark urine, and clay colored stools. It is important not to confuse symptoms of jaundice with eating too much beta-carotene, which is what causes orange pigmentation in produce, like carrots. If a person suffers from yellow or orange skin, but still has the whites of the eyes are not yellow, he or she may have consumed too much beta-carotene.
Other symptoms linked to jaundice that may be caused by certain medical conditions like cancer or hepatitis include:
Causes and Risk Factors
Jaundice is usually an indicator that there is an issue with a person’s liver, gallbladder or pancreas. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, which include:
- The conditions that can cause jaundice include cirrhosis, heart failure, hepatitis, sickle-cell anemia, acute pancreatitis and carcinomas.
- Certain medications can also trigger symptoms of jaundice. These include hormonal contraceptives, dilantin and acetaminophen. Users of illegal drugs can develop jaundice after contracting hepatitis through shared needles.
- Many people develop jaundice after surgical procedures in the upper abdominal areas that can restrict bile flow. This type of jaundice will resolve itself when the swelling subsides. A doctor will need to evaluate patients on a case-by-case basis to determine whether additional actions must be taken.
- Regardless of the underlying condition, the yellowish discoloration that accompanies jaundice results from an increase of bilirubin levels in the blood and the impaired metabolic process.
- Infants are particularly prone to developing jaundice within three to five days after birth. These cases are usually the result of congenital or common bile duct issues. Jaundice is also common in people older than 60 and is caused by obstructions and deficiencies in body.
Prevention and Treatment
Medical help should be sought immediately to have blood tests performed for accurate diagnosis and treatment. Prompt identification and treatment of jaundice is necessary for long-term care and prevention. The symptoms of jaundice, when left undiagnosed can cause serious complications and even death.
The treatment will depend on the underlying condition and extent of damage. Some patients will need no medication and monitoring only, and some patients may require emergency surgery such as a liver transplant in the case of severe damage. Jaundice can be viewed as a warning indicator for a more serious medical condition.
In the case of newborn jaundice, treatment may be necessary if the baby’s bilirubin level is too high or is quickly rising. The baby should be well-fed with breast milk or formula to help induce frequent bowel movements. More bowel movements will allow the bilirubin to pass through the stool. However, consult your physician before feeding extra formula to your newborn.
Other treatments for infant jaundice include:
- Phototherapy: Special blue lights that break down bilirubin in the skin are used in cases where a baby’s bilirubin levels are extremely high.
- Exchange transfusion: For extremely severe cases of newborn jaundice, the baby’s blood may be exchanged for fresh blood to lower bilirubin levels.
Tests and Diagnosis
When a patient shows signs of jaundice, the doctor will need to respond immediately to determine the underlying cause. A doctor may begin with a physical exam to look for any signs of liver swelling. This can be followed by a CT scan or MRI to visually examine the liver for any abnormalities or damage. The doctor may also want to check whether any obstructions are inhibiting bile flow. Using a blood test, the doctor will check levels of bilirubin, liver enzymes, and cholesterol levels. These tests can help doctors understand how extensive any damage has become.