Formula Medical Group
Apple Valley, CA

James Krider, MD

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Jaundice is a yellow tinting of the skin caused by excessive amounts of bile pigments — substances that are produced when the liver breaks down red blood cells — in the bloodstream. This discoloration may also appear in the eyes. The urine, too, may be abnormally dark.

Causes of jaundice

The basic signs of the various types of anemia are pallor, breathlessness, fatigue, weakness, and palpitations. Jaundice may also occur in severe cases, especially if the liver is affected.

Bile duct inflammation
The bile ducts, which connect the liver, gallbladder, and intestines, may become infected with bacteria, most often of the E. coli strain from the large intestine. This infection leads to inflammation, producing jaundice, pain in the upper right abdomen, fever, and chills. The inflammation may also be related to gallstones or a tumor obstructing the bile ducts.

Cirrhosis is a chronic condition in which the liver becomes scarred, resulting in serious malfunction. The major cause is alcoholism although some cases are also caused by exposure to toxic chemicals. People with mild cirrhosis may exhibit no symptoms. The severe form comes on gradually with nausea, vomiting, flatulence, and weight loss. Later, jaundice develops and the liver becomes enlarged. Fluids may collect in the abdominal cavity, causing swelling from the ribs to the groin.

Fatty liver disease
A number of disorders can cause abnormal deposits of fat to appear in the liver, impairing its function and sometimes leading to abdominal pain and jaundice. In alcoholics, a fatty liver often develops before cirrhosis. Other conditions that can trigger development of fatty liver disease include Wilson's disease (an inherited disorder marked by abnormal absorption of copper), diabetes, and obesity

Gallbladder cancer
Gallbladder cancer is a rare disease that is sometimes

jaundice eyes

A yellowing of the whites of the eyes is a telltale sign of jaundice.

associated with gallstones. Its symptoms often mimic gallstones, with diffuse or sharp pain in the upper right abdomen, jaundice, difficulty digesting certain foods, loss of appetite, and progressive weakness.

Gallstones may be present for years without producing any symptoms. When a gallstone becomes lodged in the neck of the gallbladder, however, pressure builds up and causes intense pain in the upper abdomen. Other com­mon symptoms that suggest gallstones are belching, acid indigestion, mild jaundice, and discomfort after meals.

This inflammation of the liver can range from a mild infection with no symptoms to an incapacitating illness. Jaundice is the characteristic symptom, usually appearing in the second phase of the disease. Initial symptoms may be similar to flu or gastroenteritis, including fever, severe headache, aching muscles, loss of appetite, and general weakness.

Liver cancer
A person who has chronic liver cirrhosis has an increased risk of developing liver cancer. Infection by certain parasites can also be a predisposing factor, as well as exposure to certain chemicals and toxins produced by molds on grain and peanuts. The initial symptoms mimic common stomach disturbances and include nausea and vomiting, a feeling of fullness or pressure in the abdomen, jaundice, constipation, weight loss, and anemia.

Pancreatic cancer
A tumor of the pancreas may cause jaundice, clay-colored stools, dark urine, and other symptoms that mimic gallbladder disease. Pancreatic tumors often grow silently, producing no symptoms until the cancer is far advanced. Usually the major symptom, besides jaundice, is a constant, boring pain that extends to the back.

Inflammation of the pancreas may be acute or chronic. If the bile ducts or gallbladder are involved in an acute attack, jaundice appears. The major symptom is sudden, relentless pain high in the abdomen and often radiating to the back. In the chronic form, pain is also the main symptom and may last for days or weeks. Additional characteristic signs are nausea, vomiting, jaundice, chills, and rapid heartbeat.

This condition occurs during the last trimester of pregnancy and, if not arrested, it can lead to convulsions, coma, and death. The early symptoms are mild, including an uneasy sick feeling and headache. Later, there is swelling of different parts of the body and a considerable weight gain. Headaches become severe and persistent, and there may be violent vomiting, dimming of vision, spots before the eyes, double vision, pain in the abdomen, dizziness, amnesia, jaundice, a rapid pulse, and drowsiness.

Many babies, especially those born prematurely, develop jaundice. This is because their livers are not yet fully developed. The jaundice usually disappears in a few days with treatment, which entails exposing the baby to ultraviolet light. Care must be taken, however, to protect the eyes during light therapy.

Advice about jaundice

  • Jaundice is almost always a serious or significant symptom of some underlying medical condition. If jaundice develops, consult a doctor promptly even if there are no other symptoms.
  • Avoid alcohol or use it in moderation.
  • During pregnancy, see a doctor regularly. Prenatal care, including monitoring of blood pressure, urinary protein, and weight gain, can mean early detection of pre-eclampsia.
This article was last reviewed November 8 , 2005 by Dr. James Krider.
Reproduced in part with permission of Home Health Handbook.
Anemia, Hemolytic
Anemia, Pernicious
Anemia, Sickle-cell
Bile duct inflammation
Cancer, liver
Cancer, pancreatic
Cirrhosis, alcoholic
Cirrhosis, biliary
Cirrhosis, congenital
Cirrhosis, mixed
Fatty liver disease
Gallbladder cancer

Hepatitis, infectious
Pancreatitis, acute
Pancreatitis, chronic
Undersized at birth

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