Jaundice: Causes, Symptoms, Types and Complications

Jaundice is a yellowish or greenish pigmentation of the skin and whites of the eyes(sclerae) due to high bilirubin in the blood. It is also known as icterus.

Updated: August 18, 2020

Jaundice is a yellowish or greenish pigmentation of the skin and whites of the eyes(sclerae) due to high bilirubin in the blood. It is also known as icterus. The color of the skin and sclerae varies depending on the levels of bilirubin. Yellow skin and sclerae is an indication of mildly elevated levels, while highly elevated levels display brown.

Bilirubin is a yellow chemical in hemoglobin, the substance that carries oxygen in your red blood cells. When the red blood cells break down, iron is removed from hemoglobin and bilirubin remains in the bloodstream as is a waste product. Then your body builds new cells to replace them. The old ones are processed by the liver. If the liver cannot handle the blood cells as they break down or filter out bilirubin, bilirubin builds up in the body and your skin may look yellow.

High bilirubin is divided into two types: unconjugated (indirect) and conjugated (direct).
Once bilirubin is in the liver, other chemicals are latched on to it, creating a substance called conjugated bilirubin. Bilirubin that is circulating freely in the blood is called unconjugated bilirubin. 

Causes of Jaundice:

If the liver is incapable of filtering out excess bilirubin because of any underlying disorder or the overproduction of bilirubin results bilirubin being deposited in tissues. This raises the bilirubin level in the bloodstream causing jaundice.
Some underlying conditions that may cause jaundice are: 

Acute inflammation of the liver :

The liver is unable to conjugate and secrete bilirubin properly resulting in a buildup.

Obstruction of the bile duct :

This prevents the liver from filtering of bilirubin.

Inflammation of the bile duct :

This will prevent the secretion of bile and removal of bilirubin resulting in a buildup.

Gilbert's syndrome :

This is an inherited condition in which enzymes are unable to process the excretion of bile.

Hemolytic anemia :

In this condition, the production of bilirubin increases when large quantities of red blood cells are broken down.

Cholestasis :

In this condition, the flow of bile from the liver is interrupted. The bile containing conjugated bilirubin remains deposited in the liver instead of being excreted.

Pseudojaundice :

This is a harmless form of jaundice in which the yellowing of the skin results from an excess of beta-carotene, not from an excess of bilirubin. Your body gets excess of beta-carotene from eating lots of carrots, pumpkin, or melon and medications like rifampin.

Dubin-Johnson syndrome :

This is an inherited form of chronic jaundice in which conjugated bilirubin is unable to filter out of the liver.

Crigler-Najjar syndrome :

This is an inherited condition that affects the specific enzyme responsible for processing bilirubin resulting in a buildup.

Symptoms of Jaundice:

Symptoms of jaundice include:
Yellow tinge to the skin and the whites of the eyes, normally starting at the head and spreading down the body

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Itchiness
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Dark urine
  • Paler than usual stools

Types of Jaundice:

There are three main types of jaundice:

Hepatocellular Jaundice :

This type of jaundice occurs as a result of liver disease or injury.

Hemolytic Jaundice :

This type of jaundice occurs as a result of hemolysis. Here a breakdown of red blood cells is accelerated because of several reasons leading to an increase in the production of bilirubin.

Obstructive Jaundice :

This type of jaundice occurs as a result of an obstruction in the bile duct. A system of tubes carries bile from the liver to the gallbladder and small intestine in your body which prevents bilirubin excretion from the liver.

Complications of Jaundice:

The complications of jaundice will depend on your medical conditions, the jaundice type, and severity. Some common complications include:

  • bleeding
  • infections
  • liver failure
  • kidney failure
  • anemia
  • swelling of legs
  • abdominal Bloating
  • stomach pain
  • constipation
  • flatulence
  • diarrhea


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