Understanding Jaundice: What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 07, 2023
6 min read

When red blood cells die, they leave behind bilirubin, a yellow-orange pigment in the blood. The liver filters bilirubin from the bloodstream to be removed in your stool. If too much is in your system or your liver is overloaded, it causes a buildup known as hyperbilirubinemia. This causes jaundice, where your skin and the whites of your eyes look yellow.

Newborn babies often get it. About 60% have jaundice, also known as icterus, within the first couple of days after birth. Adults can get it, too, although it's less common. See a doctor right away if you think you have jaundice. It could be a symptom of a liver, blood, or gallbladder problem.

There are four main types of jaundice, which are grouped by where the bilirubin collects in your body. A blood test can determine which type you have. 


If bilirubin builds up before blood enters the liver, it's known as prehepatic jaundice. This means you're breaking down red blood cells and creating more bilirubin than your liver can process. 


If your liver isn't able to process bilirubin well, it's called hepatic jaundice.


Posthepatic jaundice is when bilirubin builds up after passing through the liver and your body can't clear it quickly enough. 

Obstructive jaundice 

This condition is when bile isn't able to drain into your intestines because of a blocked or narrow bile or pancreatic duct. This type of jaundice has a high death rate, so it's important to catch and treat it early.


Jaundice may have no symptoms. Any signs you have may depend on how quickly the condition is getting worse. Well-known symptoms are yellowing of the skin and jaundice eyes (also called scleral icterus). But there are others to watch for, including: 

  • Fever
  • Stomach pain
  • Chills
  • Dark urine
  • Tar- or clay-colored stools
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Itchy skin
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling unusually irritated
  • Confusion 
  • Abnormal drowsiness
  • Bruising or bleeding easily
  • Bloody vomit

How long does jaundice last in adults? 

How long jaundice lasts depends on what's causing it and the treatment you need. If a medication is causing it, jaundice will fade after you stop taking it. If hepatitis is causing it, medications can be taken to treat the condition. If there is a blocked bile duct or gallstones, surgery may be required. 

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

  • Hepatitis:Liver inflammation can be caused by a virus, autoimmune disorder, alcohol or drug use, or chemical exposure. It may be short-lived (acute) or chronic, which means it lasts for at least 6 months. Long-term inflammation can damage the liver, causing jaundice.
  • Alcohol-related liver disease: If you drink heavily 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.
  • Other liver disease:Cirrhosis can also be caused by autoimmune diseases, genetic conditions that are passed down in your family, and hepatitis. A severe condition known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis can cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. With this kind of liver disease, fat builds up in your liver along with inflammation, which damages it over time. 
  • Blocked bile ducts: These are thin tubes that carry a fluid called bile from your liver and gallbladder to your small intestine. If the tubes are blocked by gallstones, cancer, inflammation, or rare liver diseases, 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.
  • Blood clots: If your body reabsorbs a large blot clot (hematoma) under the skin, it can increase bilirubin levels.
  • Hemolytic anemias: Destroyed blood cells are sometimes removed from the bloodstream too quickly, increasing bilirubin levels. 

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. They'll then give you a physical exam to see if there's swelling in your liver. 

To get more information, your doctor will likely order blood tests to measure bilirubin and cholesterol levels and get a complete blood count (CBC). If you have jaundice, your level of bilirubin will be high. Your doctor may order other tests to find the cause of your jaundice and how severe it is, including:

  • A hepatitis panel, which is a blood test that shows if you have, or have had, hepatitis. It tests for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. If there are no hepatitis antibodies in your blood, it means you don't have the condition, or you had it in the past, but your body has cleared it. 
  • Tests to check enzyme levels in the liver to see how well it is functioning. If enzyme levels are higher or lower than normal, it can mean you have disease or damage to the liver or bile ducts. 
  • Imaging, like a CT scan, ultrasound, or magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography, a type of MRI that checks for blocked ducts near the gallbladder 
  • A liver biopsy, to show if you have damage to, or disease in, your liver. During the test, a small piece of your liver is removed either with a needle inserted into the belly to the liver, through a vein in your neck, or through a cut in your belly.
  • Prothrombin time, which measures how long it takes for blood plasma to clot. Your blood will be taken, and a laboratory will test it to see if it clots faster or slower than the normal range (which is between 10 and 13 seconds). If it clots too slowly, that may mean there are problems with your liver. 

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 your liver heals. If a blocked bile duct is to blame, your doctor may suggest surgery to open it. If your skin is itching, your doctor can prescribe cholestyramine to be taken by mouth. This medication is used to remove bile acids from your body, which cause itching. 

Phototherapy for jaundice

Phototherapy uses a fluorescent white or blue-spectrum light that breaks down bilirubin so it can be released from the body. This treatment is used for newborns, but phototherapy has not been shown to be effective for treating jaundice in adults. 

You may have a higher risk for jaundice if you drink too much alcohol or have hepatitis. It is also more common in people during middle age. 

You can reduce your risk of jaundice through lifestyle changes like:

  • Avoid herbal supplements (which can be toxic to the liver) unless recommended by your doctor 
  • Stop smoking
  • Reduce or cut out all alcohol (the CDC recommends no more than two alcoholic drinks per day for men and one daily for women)
  • Don't use intravenous drugs (drugs that go into your vein)
  • Don't take more prescription medication than you are prescribed
  • Get all recommended vaccines before traveling overseas
  • Use safe sex practices
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep your cholesterol in a healthy range


Unlike newborn jaundice, jaundice is not common in adults. It usually goes away on its own, but your doctor may recommend treatment if there is a condition causing it. If you have jaundice symptoms, including yellowish skin or eyes, flu-like symptoms, dark urine, or belly pain, talk to your doctor right away. 

  • Is jaundice very serious? For infants with high neonatal bilirubin levels, or jaundice, it is usually not serious and goes away on its own. But if it lasts more than 2 weeks, your doctor may suggest treatments to lower bilirubin levels or find out if it's caused by another illness. Jaundice is usually not harmful in adults and goes away over time. If you have symptoms, talk to your doctor right away to see if they suggest tests, imaging, or treatment. 
  • How do they fix jaundice? Your doctor will test you to figure out if there is a condition like hepatitis, liver disease, cancer, or blocked bile ducts causing jaundice. If so, that condition will be treated. 
  • What does jaundice in adults feel like? Sometimes there are no symptoms. Or you may feel like you have the flu, a stomachache, or itchy skin.
  • Can adults recover from jaundice? Yes, sometimes without treatment. If a health condition is the cause, that will need to be treated.