What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin, mucous membranes, and the eyes. Jaundice, or icterus, is caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Jaundice occurs in both benign and life-threatening conditions. Bilirubin is a yellow-colored pigment that is produced by the breakdown of old red blood cells. Bilirubin is normally processed by the liver and mixed with a substance called bile before being excreted from the body through the feces.

Jaundice in newborn infants

It is not unusual for newborn babies to have yellowing of the skin and eyes due to a condition called newborn jaundice. Newborn jaundice is common and it occurs in about 60% of all newborn babies. (Source: CDC)

In many cases, newborn jaundice is not a cause for alarm and requires no treatment. However, it is important to immediately notify your infant’s health care provider if you notice yellowing of the eyes or skin in your baby so your baby’s condition and bilirubin levels can be evaluated, monitored and treated if needed.

High levels or quickly rising levels of bilirubin in newborns can lead to serious or life-threatening complications, such as cerebral palsy and brain damage. Seek prompt medical care if you notice that your baby has jaundice. Early monitoring and treatment of high levels of bilirubin reduce the risk of complications.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if your baby has symptoms such as weak sucking, inability to feed, unresponsiveness, lack of wet or dirty diapers, a stiff or limp body, strange eye movements, severe jaundice, or difficulty waking up.

Jaundice in children and adults

In children and adults, jaundice occurs when bilirubin builds up because of serious diseases and conditions that cause liver damage or dysfunction, or block the bile ducts. The bile ducts transport bile to the digestive tract to be mixed with feces. Certain conditions of the gallbladder or pancreas, such as pancreatitis or gallstones, can also cause obstruction of the bile ducts that lead to jaundice.

Serious liver diseases include hepatitis and cirrhosis. Certain blood disorders, such as hemolytic anemia, can also cause jaundice because of the abnormal destruction of red blood cells and increase in bilirubin. Jaundice in children and adults is treated by diagnosing and treating the underlying cause.

Seek prompt medical care if you, or your child, have jaundice. Early diagnosis and treatment of the cause of jaundice can reduce the risk of serious complications, such as liver failure.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms that may be associated with jaundice, such as lethargy or unresponsiveness, confusion, difficulty breathing, swelling, or a change in consciousness or alertness. You should also seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have overdosed on a drug or ingested a toxic substance.


What other symptoms might occur with jaundice?

Jaundice may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Children and adults with jaundice often have other symptoms of an underlying disease. However, newborn infants with mild jaundice often do not have any other symptoms.

In children, adolescents and adults, symptoms that may appear along with jaundice include:

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What causes jaundice?

Normally, the body continuously replaces older red blood cells with new ones. Hemolysis is the event where dying or diseased red blood cells release hemoglobin, which is metabolized by the liver into the yellow pigment bilirubin. Bilirubin is further processed by the liver and expelled from the body in a substance called bile, which also contains substances to help digestion. Bile flows throu... Read more about jaundicecauses

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 23, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Heart, Blood and Circulation