Causes of Yellow Eyes

The whites of your eyes (or sclera) turn yellow when you have a condition called jaundice. You may think of jaundice as something newborn babies get. But adults can get it, too.

The problem happens when there's much of a chemical called bilirubin in your body. It's a yellow substance that forms when red blood cells break down. Normally, it's not a problem. Your liver filters bilirubin from the blood and uses it to make a fluid called bile. Bile moves through thin tubes (called bile ducts) to get to your digestive tract, and then out of your body as waste.

But if you have too much bilirubin in your blood or if your liver can’t get rid of it fast enough, it builds up in your body and can turn your eyes yellow. That’s jaundice. It can happen for many reasons, including these.

Hepatitis

Hepatitis is when your liver becomes inflamed. Often, the cause is a virus that infects liver cells, such the hepatitis A, B, or C viruses. The infection may be short-lived (acute) or long-term (chronic), which means it lasts for at least 6 months.

Hepatitis damages the liver so it can’t filter bilirubin as well. Sometimes, certain drugs or autoimmune diseases (where your immune system attacks your own body) can cause hepatitis.

Gallstones

These hard, pebble-like pieces of material form in your gallbladder, a small organ under your liver. Gallstones are the most common cause of blocked bile ducts. Bile is a fluid that helps you digest. It’s made in the liver and contains bilirubin.

Think of bile ducts like drain pipes. They carry the fluid from your liver to your gallbladder (where it’s stored) and then to the small intestine. If bile ducts are blocked by gallstones, bilirubin builds up in your blood and your eyes turn yellow.

Some rare liver diseases can also block bile ducts.

Drinking Too Much Alcohol

If you drink heavily for a long time (at least 8 to 10 years), it can cause serious liver damage. In some people, it can lead to inflammation that destroys liver cells. Over time, scars may replace healthy liver tissue, so the liver can’t do its job.

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Certain Medicines

Medications that have been linked to jaundice include:

Cirrhosis

This is a condition that causes scar tissue to replace your healthy liver cells. It happens slowly over a long period. Many forms of liver diseases and conditions cause cirrhosis. The most common things that make it more likely are:

As more and more scar tissue forms, it's harder for your liver to work.

Hemolytic Anemia

Anemia is a condition where your blood lacks healthy red blood cells. There are many different types. In hemolytic anemia, your body breaks down red blood cells too quickly. When that happens, it releases more bilirubin than your liver can handle. Too much bilirubin leads to yellow eyes.

You could be born with this type of anemia. Or it may stem from certain infections, autoimmune disorders, or other causes.

Cancer

Liver cancer: Cancer that starts or spreads from the liver is the most common cause of jaundice in people who have cancer. It can damage liver cells or bile ducts, which affects how well bilirubin is processed.

Pancreatic cancer: Tumors in the pancreas can press on bile ducts. If bile can’t drain from the liver into the small intestine, bilirubin in the bile builds up. When pancreatic cancer spreads, it often goes to the liver. This can also cause jaundice.

Gallbladder cancer: This rare form of cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms until the tumor grows large or the cancer spreads. When the tumor is big enough to block bile ducts, it can lead to jaundice.

Gilbert Syndrome

This is a rare condition, affecting about 3% to 7% of people. If you're born with it, your liver doesn’t make enough of an enzyme it needs to process bilirubin. The result is higher levels of bilirubin in your blood and yellow eyes.

Dubin-Johnson syndrome is an even rarer disorder that affects your liver and can cause jaundice. It's passed down through the family.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 02, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Adult Jaundice,” “Gallstones,” “Anemia.”

Merck Manual: “Jaundice in Adults,” “Overview of Hepatitis,” “Alcoholic Liver Disease.”

Mayo Clinic: “Infant Jaundice,” Cirrhosis.”

American Family Physician: “Jaundice in Adults.”

Johns Hopkins: “Hemolytic Anemia.”

JAMA Oncology: “Jaundice (Hyperbilirubinemia) in Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Liver Cancer,” “Pancreatic Cancer,” “Gallbladder Cancer.”

NIH/Genetics Home Reference: “Gilbert Syndrome,” “Dubin-Johnson Syndrome.”

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