What Causes Jaundice and How to Treat It?

Jaundice treatment
Medically reviewed by Dr. Ola Tarabzuni

Overview 

Jaundice is a common disease among adults and children. Proper diagnosis and treatment can help most people fully recover and resume regular activities. Read this article till the end to learn more about this condition and its treatment options. 

What is Jaundice?

Jaundice is a disease in which the skin and eyes turn yellow. It happens when there is an excess amount of bilirubin in the body.

A normal liver processes bilirubin and removes it from the body through the bile ducts. However, if the liver is damaged or the bile duct is blocked, bilirubin can build up in the blood, making the skin and eyes look yellow. Globally, 80% of premature babies are affected by jaundice.

There are three main types of jaundice:

  1. Prehepatic jaundice: When too many red blood cells break down, the body makes excessive bilirubin. This causes jaundice to occur. Hemolytic anemia, sickle cell anemia, or thalassemia cause this kind of jaundice.
  2. Hepatic jaundice: It occurs in case of liver damage or liver disease. Various conditions, including hepatitis, cirrhosis, or alcoholic liver disease, can cause hepatic jaundice.
  3. Post-hepatic jaundice: It happens when the flow of bilirubin is stopped due to blockage in the bile ducts. Because the body can’t get rid of bilirubin properly, the skin and eyes turn yellow. Gallstones, tumors, or pancreatitis can cause post-hepatic jaundice.

Causes of Jaundice

There are several causes of jaundice. Hence, identifying the underlying causes of jaundice is crucial to determine the appropriate treatment and prevent potential complications. Some common causes are as follows:

  1. Liver disease: This is the most common cause of jaundice. Liver diseases such as hepatitis, biliary atresia, and liver cancer can cause damage to the liver and result in jaundice.
  2. Obstruction of the bile ducts: The liver transports bile to the small intestine through the bile ducts. When gallstones, tumors, or inflammation block these ducts, the bile can return to the liver, leading to jaundice.
  3. Hemolytic anemia: It occurs when the body breakdowns red blood cells more rapidly than it can produce new ones. This leads to an excess of bilirubin in the bloodstream.
  4. Gilbert’s syndrome: It is a hereditary condition in which the liver cannot process bilirubin properly. Hence, a lot of bilirubin gathers in the bloodstream.
  5. Newborn jaundice: This is a common condition in newborns. In newborns, the liver is not yet mature enough to process bilirubin efficiently. Therefore, an increase in bilirubin causes jaundice in newborns.

Causes of Jaundice in Adults 

  1. Alcoholic liver disease: Alcohol can harm the liver and affects its ability to process bilirubin. Hence, the skin and eyes turn yellow due to a rise in the level of bilirubin in the body.
  2. Medications: Certain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and some antibiotics, can cause jaundice.
  3. Autoimmune hepatitis: This is a rare condition in which the immune system attacks the liver and causes inflammation and damage.
  4. Pancreatic cancer: When a person has pancreatic cancer, the bile ducts are blocked. This prevents the liver from removing bilirubin properly. Bilirubin level then increases in the blood and causes jaundice.
  5. Liver diseases: Hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer are common causes of jaundice in adults. These conditions can cause damage to the liver.
  6. Obstruction of the bile ducts: When gallstones, tumors, or inflammation blocks the bile ducts, the bile can go back into the liver, leading to jaundice.

Causes in Children 

Jaundice in newborns and infants can be caused by different factors, such as:

  1. Physiological jaundice: It is caused by the immature liver’s inability to process bilirubin efficiently. It is typically apparent when the baby is 2 to 4 days old. 
  2. Breastfeeding jaundice: Breastfed babies can develop jaundice when they are not getting enough milk, which can cause dehydration and increase bilirubin levels in their bloodstream.
  3. Breast milk jaundice: It is a type of jaundice that can affect some breastfed babies. It occurs when substances in the breast milk cause bilirubin levels to rise in the baby’s bloodstream. This type of jaundice usually goes away on its own and does not require treatment.
  4. Blood type incompatibility: When the baby’s blood type differs from the mother’s, the mother’s body may attack the baby’s red blood cells. This can cause an increase in bilirubin levels in the baby’s body.
  5. Liver diseases: In rare cases, newborns may have liver conditions such as biliary atresia or neonatal hepatitis that can result in jaundice.

Symptoms of Jaundice

Yellowing of the skin and eyes’ whites are typical symptoms of jaundice. Other symptoms of jaundice may include:

  1. Dark urine
  2. Pale stools
  3. Itching
  4. Fatigue
  5. Abdominal pain
  6. Loss of appetite
  7. Fever

If you experience symptoms of jaundice, seeking medical assistance is crucial as it may indicate a serious underlying health condition that requires treatment.

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Medical Conditions Associated with Jaundice

Several medical conditions can cause jaundice, such as:

  1. Hepatitis: 

Hepatitis can stop the liver from processing and excreting bilirubin. This can result in excess bilirubin in the blood, leading to jaundice.

  1. Cirrhosis 

It is a health problem that harms and scars the liver. It often happens because of extended alcohol consumption or continuous viral hepatitis. Cirrhosis can harm the liver, causing it not to work properly. Hence, it is a severe cause of jaundice.

  1. Biliary atresia: 

Biliary atresia is a liver disease that mostly affects babies and can be very dangerous. It happens when the bile ducts are damaged or missing, which harms the liver and causes yellowing of the skin and eyes. If not treated, it can make the liver stop working and even lead to death.

  1. Gallstones: 

Gallstones can cause jaundice. This happens when the stones block the flow of bile. When the bile cannot flow properly, it builds up in the liver and causes jaundice.

  1. Pancreatic cancer: 

Pancreatic cancer often leads to jaundice, particularly when it affects the pancreas head. This occurs because cancer can block the bile duct, which connects the liver to the small intestine. This blockage prevents bilirubin from being eliminated from the body, leading to its buildup. High levels of bilirubin cause the skin and eyes to turn yellow.

  1. Hemolytic anemia: 

In hemolytic anemia, the body destroys red blood cells too quickly and can’t replace them fast enough. This can also cause bilirubin levels to increase in the body.

  1. Gilbert’s syndrome: 

It is a genetic condition in which the liver cannot process bilirubin effectively. This can lead to mild jaundice in people.

  1. Dubin-Johnson syndrome: 

It is a rare inherited condition in which the liver cannot transport bilirubin out of the liver. Hence, it leads to jaundice.

  1. Crigler-Najjar syndrome: 

It is a rare genetic disorder in which the liver cannot process bilirubin effectively. This can lead to severe jaundice.

It is important to get help from a doctor immediately. They can diagnose your condition properly and create a treatment plan that suits your needs.

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Prevention of Jaundice

Various factors can cause jaundice. You can prevent jaundice by following some simple tips.

  1. Practice good hygiene: 

Jaundice caused by infections like hepatitis A and E can be prevented by practicing good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently, avoid sharing personal items like toothbrushes, razors, and needles, and avoid consuming contaminated food and water.

  1. Get vaccinated: 

You can get vaccinated to protect against hepatitis A and B to avoid getting infected and developing jaundice later.

  1. Manage underlying conditions: 

If you have an underlying medical disorder that increases your risk of jaundice, like liver disease or gallstones, work with your doctor to manage the condition and prevent complications.

  1. Avoid alcohol: 

Drinking too much alcohol can harm your liver and increase the risk of jaundice. Avoid or limit alcohol intake to prevent liver damage.

  1. Maintain a healthy diet: 

Eating a healthy diet can maintain liver function and prevent liver disease. Avoid fatty, processed, and sugary foods and focus on consuming various fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.

Diagnosis of Jaundice

The diagnosis of jaundice involves a physical examination, medical history, and various tests. Doctors adopt the following diagnosis procedures:

  1. Blood tests: 

Blood tests are very important for finding out the cause of jaundice. The results of these tests can help doctors determine the appropriate treatment for the underlying condition causing jaundice. Several blood tests can be done to diagnose jaundice and determine its underlying cause. These include:

  • Bilirubin Test
  • Liver Function Test
  • Complete Blood Count
  • Reticulocyte Count
  1. Imaging tests: 

Imaging tests like ultrasound, CT scan, and MRI can help identify any obstructions or abnormalities in the liver, bile ducts, or pancreas.

  1. Endoscopy: 

The process of endoscopy involves inserting a thin, flexible tube with a camera and light on the end into the body. This test can help identify any obstructions or abnormalities in the digestive system.

  1. Biopsy: 

A liver biopsy involves removing a small sample of liver tissue for analysis. This test can help identify the underlying cause of jaundice. Doctors usually perform a biopsy when they cannot diagnose the cause of jaundice through blood tests and imaging studies or if they suspect cancer. A biopsy helps to confirm whether cancer is present and provides information on the type and stage of cancer. 

Treatment of Jaundice

For adults

The treatment in adults depends on the cause and the specific type of jaundice. Some common treatments for jaundice are:

  • Hepatitis-related jaundice: To treat jaundice caused by viral hepatitis, doctors suggest taking antiviral medications, resting adequately, and staying well-hydrated by drinking lots of fluids. You can also prevent hepatitis A and B infections by getting vaccinated. 
  • Obstructive jaundice: If an obstruction in the bile duct causes jaundice, treatment may involve surgery to remove the obstruction or using a stent to hold the ducts open.
  • Hemolytic jaundice: If the destruction of red blood cells causes jaundice, treatment may involve addressing the underlying cause of hemolysis, such as stopping the use of certain medications, treating infections, or addressing autoimmune disorders.
  • Liver disease-related jaundice: Liver disease can cause jaundice. To treat it, people may need to change their lifestyle by not drinking alcohol and eating healthy food. Doctors may also give medicines to control symptoms and slow down the disease. If the disease is very serious, they may need to get a new liver through a transplant.

For children

Here are some common treatments for different types of jaundice in children:

  1. Physiological jaundice: This type is common in newborns and often resolves independently within a few weeks. Treatment may involve phototherapy, exposing the baby’s skin to special blue lights to break down bilirubin in the blood.
  2. Breastfeeding-related jaundice: If jaundice is caused by poor breastfeeding, treatment may involve addressing the underlying cause, such as improving the baby’s latch or offering more frequent feedings. Supplemental feedings may also be necessary.
  3. Hemolytic jaundice: If the destruction of red blood cells causes jaundice, treatment may involve addressing the underlying cause of hemolysis, such as stopping the use of certain medications, treating infections, or addressing autoimmune disorders.
  4. Liver disease-related jaundice: When liver disease causes jaundice, the treatment may involve taking medicines to ease symptoms and slow down the disease’s advancement. In severe instances, a liver transplant may be necessary.

Children with jaundice can also feel better if they make some changes in their lifestyle, such as proper rest, a healthy diet, and drinking enough fluids.

When to consult a doctor?

It’s crucial to see a doctor immediately if you have jaundice symptoms. This can prevent more serious problems and improve your chances of recovery. You can consult Your Doctor Online with professional specialists to get a treatment plan. 

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FAQs About Jaundice Answered by Your Doctors Online Team.

Can jaundice be prevented?

You can prevent jaundice by following good hygiene, vaccination, medications, and a healthy diet.

What is the risk you’ll develop jaundice?

The risk of having jaundice depends on several factors, such as liver disease, infections, alcohol consumption, and blood disorders.

How long does jaundice take to heal?

It usually takes 10 to 14 days to recover. It may also last for more than three weeks in breastfed babies.

What naturally helps jaundice?

Both adults and babies who have jaundice may benefit from natural sunlight. Jaundice can also be treated naturally by changing your diet and drinking sugarcane juice, papaya leaf paste, black cumin, and mint tea.

Does jaundice mean liver failure?

No, jaundice does not mean liver failure, although it can be a liver disease or dysfunction symptom.

What stage of liver damage is jaundice?

Jaundice is an early sign of liver damage, but it doesn’t show which stage of liver damage it is.

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