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Bilirubin

A bilirubin test measures the amount of bilirubin in a blood sample. Bilirubin is a brownish yellow substance found in bile. It is produced when the liver breaks down old red blood cells. Bilirubin is then removed from the body through the stool (feces) and gives stool its normal color.

Bilirubin circulates in the bloodstream in two forms:

  • Indirect (or unconjugated) bilirubin. This form of bilirubin does not dissolve in water (it is insoluble). Indirect bilirubin travels through the bloodstream to the liver, where it is changed into a soluble form (direct or conjugated).
  • Direct (or conjugated) bilirubin. Direct bilirubin dissolves in water (it is soluble) and is made by the liver from indirect bilirubin.

Total bilirubin and direct bilirubin levels are measured directly in the blood, whereas indirect bilirubin levels are derived from the total and direct bilirubin measurements.

When bilirubin levels are high, the skin and whites of the eyes may appear yellow (jaundice). Jaundice may be caused by liver disease (hepatitis), blood disorders (hemolytic anemia), or blockage of the tubes (bile ducts) that allow bile to pass from the liver to the small intestine camera.gif.

Mild jaundice in newborns usually does not cause problems. But too much bilirubin (hyperbilirubinemia) in a newborn baby can cause brain damage (kernicterus) and other serious problems. So some babies who develop jaundice may need treatment to lower their bilirubin levels.

Why It Is Done

The bilirubin test is used to:

  • Check liver function and watch for signs of liver disease, such as hepatitis or cirrhosis, or the effects of medicines that can damage the liver.
  • Find out if something is blocking the bile ducts. This may occur if gallstones, tumors of the pancreas, or other conditions are present.
  • Diagnose conditions that cause increased destruction of red blood cells, such as hemolytic anemia or hemolytic disease of the newborn.
  • Help make decisions about whether newborn babies with neonatal jaundice need treatment. These babies may need treatment with special lights, called phototherapy. In rare cases, blood transfusions may be needed.

How To Prepare

Adults should not eat or drink for 4 hours before a bilirubin test.

No special preparation is needed for children before having a bilirubin test.

Tell your doctor if you:

  • Are taking any medicines.
  • Are allergic to any medicines.
  • Have had bleeding problems or take blood-thinners, such as aspirin or warfarin (Coumadin).
  • Are or might be pregnant.

Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have regarding the need for the test, its risks, how it will be done, or what the results will mean. To help you understand the importance of this test, fill out the medical test information form(What is a PDF document?).

How It Is Done

Blood sample from a heel stick

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: May 11, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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