Yellow Eyes: Causes

By Shaffer, Michael
By Spader, Catherine RN

What causes yellow eyes?

Yellow eyes are typically due to jaundice. Normally, the body continuously replaces older red blood cells with new ones. A yellow pigment called bilirubin is left behind from this process. Bilirubin is 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.

Yellow eyes and jaundice are caused by an underlying disease, disorder or condition that causes a problem with this process, leading to a buildup of bilirubin in the body.

Causes of yellow eyes in newborns

Yellowing of the eyes and skin 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 fetus’ bilirubin before birth. After birth, the baby’s 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 contribute to 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 yellow eyes or skin 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 that your baby’s condition and bilirubin levels can be evaluated, monitored and treated if needed.

Causes of yellow eyes in children and adults

Yellow eyes, as well as yellowing of the skin, occur 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. Certain conditions of the gallbladder or pancreas, such as pancreatitis or gallstones, can cause obstruction of the bile ducts that leads to jaundice and yellowing of the eyes.

Liver or biliary-system causes of yellow eyes 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)

  • Pregnancy-induced obstruction of the bile ducts

Other causes of yellow eyes include:

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

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

  • Pterygium or pinguecula (both conditions are slightly raised yellow growths on the cornea and conjunctiva which cover the sclera of the eye, often caused by sun exposure). Pterygium and pinguecula are generally mild conditions and not related to jaundice or underlying causes.

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

  • Staining of the eyes with an orange-yellow dye used to diagnose eye injuries. This is harmless and temporary.

What are the potential complications of yellow eyes?

Complications of yellow eyes, and jaundice in general, vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Complications of yellow eyes in children and adults

Yellow eyes and jaundice in adults are often due to serious conditions, such as liver disease, that can lead to serious and life-threatening complications including:

Complications of yellow eyes 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.
  2. Facts about Jaundice and Kernicterus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  3. Jaundice-associated conditions. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  4. Jaundice and Kernicterus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  5. Liver Disease. Lab Tests Online.
  6. The Progression of Liver Disease. American Liver Foundation.  
  7. Portal Hypertension. Vascular Disease Foundation.

What are yellow eyes?

Yellow eyes occur when the whites of the eyes (sclerae) take on a yellowish tinge. Also known as scleral icterus, yellow eyes are generally a sign of jaundice caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. 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 released into the intestine in bile before bei... Read more about yellow eyesintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with yellow eyes?

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

In children, adolescents and adults, symptoms that may appear al... Read more about yellow eyessymptoms

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 11, 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: Eyes and Vision

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