The whites of your eyes might turn yellow when your body has too much of a chemical called bilirubin, a yellow substance that forms when red blood cells break down. Normally, it's not a problem. Your liver filters bilirubin from your 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.
Common Causes of Yellow Eyes
Yellowing of the eyes might happen for many reasons, including these:
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.
Think of bile ducts like drainpipes. 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. That causes the whites of your eyes to 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, making it harder for your liver do its job.
Medications that have been linked to jaundice include:
While hepatitis viruses are the most common causes of liver infection, they can also result from parasites like liver flukes. You can get them from eating raw or undercooked fish or infected plants. It infection isn’t common in the U.S., but ascariasis, or roundworms, can get into and block your bile ducts.
Bile Duct Diseases
Gallstones are the most common bile duct disease, but there are some rare conditions that could cause jaundice, like:
- Biliary atresia: This is a bile duct blockage that usually affects infants 2 to 6 weeks after birth.
- Primary biliary cholangitis: This destroys the bile ducts over time.
- P rimary sclerosing cholangitis: This causes scarring in the ducts.
A Reaction to a Blood Transfusion
If you’re given blood that’s the wrong type -- for example, if you have type A blood but are given type B or type AB -- your immune system might destroy the wrong blood, releasing bilirubin and causing jaundice. This problem is rare because of blood testing, but it’s considered an emergency.
Sickle Cell Anemia
Sickle cell diseases are especially common in people of African or Caribbean ancestry. They cause your body to make red blood cells that are sticky, become curved and back up in the liver, and die faster than your liver can filter them out. Bilirubin from these cells builds up in your body, causing jaundice.
This condition 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:
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Being obese, which makes you more likely to get other conditions that lead to cirrhosis
- Chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C infection
As more and more scar tissue forms, it's harder for your liver to work.
Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
When too much fat builds up in your liver, even though you drink little or no alcohol, it’s called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. A severe form of this condition, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, leads to liver inflammation and scarring (cirrhosis).
Anemia is a condition in which your blood lacks healthy red blood cells. There are many 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.
You could be born with this type of anemia. Or it may stem from infections, autoimmune disorders, or other causes.
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.
This rare condition only affects 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 families.
How to Get Rid of Yellow Eyes
Treating the cause of your yellow eyes should clear them up. For example, if a gallstone is blocking your bile duct, you might need to take medication or get a simple surgery. If you have hepatitis, your doctor might give you drugs to fight the virus. Or they might tell you to avoid drinking alcohol or taking certain medicines.