What Is Gilbert Syndrome?

Gilbert syndrome is a common disorder that's passed through families. When you have it, too much of a waste product called bilirubin builds up in your blood. It can make your skin and eyes look yellow from time to time.

Gilbert syndrome looks scarier than it is. It's a harmless condition that doesn't need to be treated.

Causes

It happens when the UGT1A1 gene changes, or mutates. This gene carries instructions for making a liver enzyme that helps break down and get rid of the bilirubin in your body.

Parents pass UGT1A1 gene mutations to their children. You need to get two copies of the abnormal gene -- one from each parent -- to get it. Even if you do have both genes, you might not have Gilbert syndrome.

Symptoms

Most people with Gilbert syndrome don't have any symptoms. They have enough of the liver enzyme to control their bilirubin levels.

When bilirubin does build up in the blood, it causes the skin and whites of the eyes to turn yellow. This is called jaundice. See your doctor if you notice a yellow color to your skin and eyes, because another condition could be causing it.

Jaundice is a common problem in babies. But it’s worse in babies born with Gilbert syndrome.

Certain things can make your bilirubin levels rise, but you might only notice jaundice when you:

  • Are stressed
  • Are dehydrated
  • Exercise too much
  • Have an infection like the flu
  • Skip meals
  • Drink alcohol
  • Take medicines that affect your liver
  • Are outside in cold weather
  • Have your period

Diagnosis

Although people are born with Gilbert syndrome, sometimes they don’t get diagnosed until their 20s or 30s. Your doctor might find high bilirubin levels in a blood test that's done for another reason.

These levels can go up and down over time. A single blood test might not pick up Gilbert syndrome.

If your bilirubin levels are high, your doctor might order a liver ultrasound or liver function tests to rule out other problems. Gene tests can also be used to diagnose Gilbert syndrome.

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Treatments

Most people with Gilbert syndrome don't need treatment. Jaundice doesn't cause any long-term problems.

To prevent it, try to avoid things that make your bilirubin levels rise. For instance:

  • Don't skip meals
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Use relaxation techniques or other methods to manage stress
  • Get a good night's sleep
  • Limit your alcoholic drinks

The same liver enzyme that breaks down bilirubin also breaks down certain medicines, including:

If you have Gilbert syndrome and you take any of these drugs, you're at higher risk for side effects like diarrhea. Ask your doctor before you take any new medicine. And don't take more than the recommended dose.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on September 09, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Liver Foundation: "Gilbert Syndrome."

BMJ Best Practice: "Gilbert's syndrome."

British Liver Trust: "Gilbert's Syndrome."

National Organization for Rare Disorders: "Gilbert Syndrome."

Orphanet: "Gilbert syndrome."

UpToDate: "Patient education: Gilbert syndrome (Beyond the Basics)."

 

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