Jaundice: Why It Happens in Adults

What Is Jaundice?

It’s a disease that turns your skin and the whites of your eyes yellow. Newborn babies often get it. But adults can, too.

See a doctor right away if you think you have jaundice. It could be a symptom of a liver, blood, or gallbladder problem.

Why Do Adults Get It?

Jaundice happens when there’s too much bilirubin, a yellow-orange substance, in your blood. It’s found in your red blood cells. When those cells die, the liver filters it from the bloodstream. But if something’s wrong and your liver can’t keep up, bilirubin builds up and can cause your skin to look yellow.

Jaundice is rare in adults, but you can get it for many reasons. Some of these include:

  • Hepatitis: Most of the time, this infection is caused by a virus. It may be short-lived (acute) or chronic, which means it lasts for at least 6 months. Drugs or autoimmune disorders can cause hepatitis. Over time, it can damage the liver and lead to jaundice.
  • Alcohol-related liver disease: If you drink too much over a long period of time -- typically 8 to 10 years -- you could seriously damage your liver. Two diseases in particular, alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis, harm the liver.
  • Blocked bile ducts: These are thin tubes that carry a fluid called bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine. Sometimes, they get blocked by gallstones, cancer, or rare liver diseases. If they do, you could get jaundice.
  • Pancreatic cancer: This is the 10th most common cancer in men and the ninth in women. It can block the bile duct, causing jaundice.
  • Certain medicines: Drugs like acetaminophen, penicillin, birth control pills, and steroids have been linked to liver disease.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your doctor will give you a bilirubin test, which measures the amount of the substance in your blood. If you have jaundice, your level of bilirubin will be high.

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. She may also give you a physical exam and order tests to check your liver. And she’ll do a complete blood count (CBC) test to find out what caused it.

How Is It Treated?

In adults, jaundice itself usually isn’t treated. But your doctor will treat the condition that’s causing it.

If you have acute viral hepatitis, jaundice will go away on its own as the liver begins to heal. If a blocked bile duct is to blame, your doctor may suggest surgery to open it.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 01, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Merck Manual: “Jaundice in Adults.”

American Liver Foundation: “Alcohol-Related Liver Disease.”

American Cancer Society: “What is Bile Duct Cancer?”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Is This Symptom or Side-Effect Unusual?”

American Family Physician: “Jaundice in the Adult Patient.”

American Association for Clinical Chemistry: “Bilirubin.”

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