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Jaundice (Yellow Eyes): Causes & Treatment

Jaundice is a condition where the whites of your eyes turn yellow. Your skin may also take on a yellowish hue. 

Typically, jaundice is caused by underlying conditions where the body builds up a yellow substance known as bilirubin. The buildup of bilirubin may be due to liver disease, gallstones, infection of the pancreas, hepatitis, or sickle cell disease. 

Jaundice is sometimes seen in newborn babies, causing a yellow hue to the whites of eyes and skin. While this can look alarming, it is generally harmless.

As the underlying conditions causing jaundice can be quite serious, it is important to seek medical help and not ignore the symptoms.

Causes of Jaundice

There are various causes of jaundice, some more common than others.

Common Causes

Jaundice can be caused by issues in any of the phases of bilirubin production. There are three phases: before, during, and after bilirubin production.

Essentially, jaundice is caused by a disruption of normal bilirubin removal from the body. 

Jaundice is usually a symptom of liver disease. This may be from various causes, such as viral infections like hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E. Scarring of the liver, heavy drinking, and autoimmune disease can also trigger liver disease.

Sickle cell anemia and hemolytic anemia cause disruption before bilirubin has been moved from the blood to the liver. This is known as pre-hepatic jaundice. Pre indicates before and hepatic means related to the liver.

Cirrhosis and liver damage are conditions that disrupt the liver. This is known as intra-hepatic jaundice or hepatocellular jaundice. Intra means within; hepatic refers to the liver.

Gallstones and tumors can disrupt the transport of the bile containing bilirubin from the liver. This lack of drainage creates too much bilirubin in the blood. 

This is called post-hepatic jaundice or obstructive jaundice. Post refers to after; hepatic refers to the liver.

Less Common Causes of Jaundice

Gilbert’s syndrome typically causes a slight increase in bilirubin to build up in the blood. This may create occasional, short episodes of yellow-looking eyes. 

Leptospirosis may also cause jaundice. This is a condition caused by bacteria, most often found when animal urine has infected water or soil. 

There is currently no vaccine for leptospirosis, but people can get it if they come into contact with contaminated drinking water or foods. 

Signs & Symptoms of Jaundice

Symptoms of jaundice may vary from severe to moderate. 

The most common signs are hard to ignore. They include the following:

  • The whites of the eye appear yellow.
  • The skin takes on a yellowish hue.
  • Mucous membranes, such as those in the mouth and nose, appear yellow.

You might notice some less common signs as well, such as pale-colored stools or dark-colored urine. 

Short-term jaundice caused by an infection often has additional signs, such as these: 

  • Fever 
  • Chills
  • Abdominal pain
  • Change in skin color
  • Change in stool and urine color
  • Body aches

If jaundice is not caused by infection, the signs and symptoms are slightly different. They include the following:

  • Itchy skin
  • Weight loss
  • Joint inflammation
  • Chronic inflammation of the liver

Diagnosis of Jaundice

Depending on the severity of your condition, your physician or health care provider will perform several tests. These may include tests for liver function, blood tests, and urine tests. 

Doctors check for signs of liver disease with a physical exam. They look for bruising, red coloration of the palms and fingertips, and abnormal collection of blood vessels near the skin surface, known as spider angiomas.

In addition, your doctor may diagnose the size and health of a liver with ultrasonography or CT scan. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may take a liver biopsy, which is a small sample of the liver. 

Jaundice Treatment

The treatment for jaundice will vary depending on the cause of the condition. Treating the underlying condition may require surgery, a blood transfusion, or lifestyle changes.

For instance, with hepatitis B or hepatitis C, you may need to take specific medications. 

With hepatitis A, you may need to rest, drink fluids, and avoid alcohol to relieve symptoms. In other cases, such as a blocked bile duct or gallstones, treatment may be surgical. 

Talk with your doctor to evaluate the most effective treatment for your condition.

Babies may be born with jaundice. Their young bodies are not fully developed to remove bilirubin as normal. Newborn jaundice typically resolves within two weeks without treatment.

Complications of Jaundice

Complications and side effects of jaundice treatments include constipation, bloating, stomach pain, gas, and upset stomach. You may also experience vomiting or diarrhea.

Talk to your doctor about any complications you experience, so they can address them.

When to See a Doctor

Jaundice can indicate a severe underlying medical condition, so seek immediate attention if you suspect it. 

You should not use a “wait and seek” approach. Medical attention is required for jaundice.

Prevention

Jaundice is best prevented with overall lifestyle modifications that promote overall health.

  • Limit alcohol consumption, as excessive alcohol consumption is very hard on your liver.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. 
  • Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B, particularly if traveling to high-risk areas.
  • Manage your cholesterol levels.
  • Eat a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet.

Jaundice FAQs

What do jaundice eyes mean?

Jaundice eyes indicate that your body is having trouble processing bilirubin. It is a warning sign from your body that something is not working correctly with your normal body processes. 

Yellowish eyes can indicate a serious underlying medical condition. Do not wait. Call your doctor or seek emergency medical attention immediately.

How do you get rid of jaundice in your eyes?

You’ll need to address the underlying issue causing your jaundice. A doctor will need to diagnose the underlying medical condition and prescribe appropriate treatments. 

Who is at risk of developing jaundice?

Jaundice is common in newborns, but it usually resolves on its own within two weeks.

Middle-aged women and men are generally more at risk for jaundice than the general population. People who consume high levels of alcohol or who have hepatitis are at an increased risk for jaundice.

Will jaundice eyes go away?

Jaundice eyes will generally go away when the underlying medical condition is resolved. For instance, if jaundice was triggered by taking certain medications, it generally goes away after some time without the medication. Similarly, if excessive alcohol consumption is stopped, jaundice will often resolve.

Are yellow eyes serious?

Yellow eyes are often a symptom of jaundice. It can be the sign of a serious underlying medical condition, such as liver disease, so prompt medical attention is required. Without treatment, jaundice can cause seizures and brain damage.

References

  1. Why Are the Whites of My Eyes Discolored? (May 2022). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  2. The Assessment of Jaundice in Adults: Tests, Imaging, Differential Diagnosis. (June 2011). JAAPA.

  3. Evaluation of Jaundice in Adults. (February 2017). American Family Physician.

  4. Jaundice Revisited: Recent Advances in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Inherited Cholestatic Liver Diseases. (October 2018). Journal of Biomedical Science.

  5. Jaundice as a Diagnostic and Therapeutic Problem: A General Practitioner’s Approach. (May 2022). Karger.

  6. Jaundice. (May 2022). StatPearls

  7. Liver Health. John Hopkins Medicine. 

  8. Adult Jaundice: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment & Prevention. (July 2018). Cleveland Clinic. 

  9. Jaundice in Adults. HealthDirect Australia.

  10. Hepatitis A. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  11. Jaundice. National Health Service.

  12. Chronic Liver Disease and Cirrhosis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  13. Gilbert’s Syndrome. National Health Service.

  14. Leptospirosis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

  15. Hepatitis C. National Health Service.

  16. UC Immunization Requirements and Recommendations. University of California, Irvine.

  17. Cholesterol: Types, Tests, Treatments, Prevention. Cleveland Clinic.

Last Updated July 20, 2022

Note: This page should not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor or specialist. Please review our about page for more information.