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 through the bile duct into the small intestine to aid in digestion and eventually mixes with stool for elimination.

Jaundice is caused by an underlying disease, disorder or condition that permits excess bilirubin to accumulate in the body. The causes vary between newborn infants and adults and older children.

Causes of newborn jaundice

Jaundice is common in newborns due to physiological jaundice, which is usually not serious and often disappears within two weeks after birth. A pregnant woman’s liver processes the bilirubin produced in the fetus before birth. After birth, the babies’ liver begins to function and process bilirubin, but may not process the bilirubin in sufficient quantities during the first several days. Physiological jaundice can result in temporary yellowing of the eyes and skin that is often not serious or harmful. Breastfeeding can also cause newborn jaundice.

Serious, but less common, causes of newborn jaundice include:

  • Biliary atresia (blockages in the ducts carrying bile from the liver to the gallbladder)

  • Certain blood disorders or abnormalities

  • Certain inherited disorders

  • Infection

  • Liver disease

Although jaundice in newborns is often not serious, it is important to notify your infant’s health care provider immediately 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.

Causes of jaundice in children and adults

Jaundice occurs in children and adults when bilirubin builds up due to serious diseases and conditions that cause liver damage or dysfunction, or block the bile ducts. Pancreatitis and gallstones can also cause obstruction of the bile ducts and jaundice.

Liver or biliary-system causes of jaundice include:

  • Bile duct narrowing or obstruction (due to gallstones or pancreatitis)

  • Cancer including that of the liver and pancreas

  • Cirrhosis (liver scarring due to a variety of liver diseases)

  • Drug-induced cholestasis (slowing of bile flow due to medications)

  • Hepatitis (liver inflammation, which can be caused by alcoholism, medications or infection)

  • Ischemic hepatocellular jaundice (due to a lack of blood or oxygen reaching the liver)

  • Malaria (disease in which parasites destroy red blood cells)

  • Pregnancy-induced obstruction of the bile ducts

Other causes of jaundice include:

  • Hemolytic anemia (condition in which the body destroys too many of its own red blood cells)

  • Sickle cell anemia (inherited disease characterized by abnormally shaped red blood cells)

What are the potential complications of jaundice?

Complications of jaundice vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Jaundice is an important signal that something abnormal is happening inside the body. Jaundice in adults is often due to serious conditions, such as liver disease, that can lead to serious and life-threatening complications including:

Complications of jaundice in newborns

In newborns, very high or rapidly rising levels of bilirubin, which cause jaundice, can lead to a rare but serious complication called kernicterus, a type of brain damage. Kernicterus can lead to the following conditions:

  • Cerebral palsy

  • Hearing loss

  • Teeth and vision problems

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by seeking regular medical care and following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you or your child.


  1. Cirrhosis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001301/.
  2. Jaundice and Kernicterus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/jaundice/facts.html.
  3. Jaundice. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000210.htm.

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 ... Read more about jaundiceintroduction


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:

Read more about jaundicesymptoms

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