Know the basics

What is jaundice?

Jaundice, also known as icterus, is the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes that is caused by very high bilirubin levels in the blood. Bilirubin forms when red blood cells break down. The body usually gets rid of bilirubin through the liver. Usually in newborns, the liver is has not fully developed, which makes bilirubin build up faster than the liver can get rid of it.  This can happen in people who have liver conditions.

How common is jaundice?

Jaundice is a very common condition. Jaundice can occur at any age but is more common in newborns. Jaundice usually resolves in newborns but can be a sign of a more serious condition if it does not go away. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Know the symptoms

What are the symptoms of jaundice?

The common signs and symptom is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Other symptoms include:

  • Yellow colour inside the mouth;
  • Dark or brown-coloured urine;
  • Pale or clay-coloured stools;
  • High bilirubin levels;
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Feeling weak and tired.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Your baby’s skin becomes more yellow;
  • Your baby’s skin looks yellow on the abdomen, arms or legs;
  • The whites of your baby’s eyes look yellow;
  • Your baby seems listless or sick or is difficult to awaken;
  • Your baby is not gaining weight or is feeding poorly;
  • Your baby makes high-pitched cries;
  • Your baby develops any other signs or symptoms that concern you;
  • Jaundice lasts more than three weeks.

In adults, yellow skin can be a symptom of liver diseases. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Know the causes

What causes jaundice?

This cause of jaundice is the build-up of bilirubin, a by-product of red blood cells, in the blood. Bilirubin forms when red blood cells break down. The body usually gets rid of bilirubin through the liver.  When the liver is not working properly, it cannot filter the bilirubin out of the blood. This is common when the liver is damaged or not fully developed.

Very high levels of bilirubin can cause harmful effects, such as damage to the baby’s nervous system. Premature babies are more likely to get jaundice than are full-term babies.

Other causes may include infection, a blood type conflict between mother and baby, and breast milk. Sometimes, breast milk interferes with the ability of a baby’s liver to process bilirubin. This type of jaundice develops later than the others and can last for several weeks.

Know the risk factors

What increases my risk for jaundice?

There are many risk factors for jaundice, such as:

  • Premature birth.A baby born before 38 weeks may not be able to process bilirubin as quickly as full-term babies do. Also, he or she may feed less and have fewer bowel movements, resulting in less bilirubin eliminated through stool.
  • Significant bruising during birth.If your new-born gets bruises from the delivery, he or she may have a higher level of bilirubin from the breakdown of more red blood cells.
  • Blood type.If the mother’s blood type is different from her baby’s, the baby may have received antibodies through the placenta that cause his or her blood cells to break down more quickly.
  • Breast-feeding difficulties.Breast-fed babies, particularly those who have difficulty nursing or getting enough nutrition from breast-feeding, are at higher risk of jaundice. Dehydration or a low calorie intake may contribute to the onset of jaundice. However, because of the benefits of breast-feeding, experts still recommend it. It is important to make sure your baby gets enough to eat and is adequately hydrated.

Understand the diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is jaundice diagnosed?

The doctor will do a simple blood test to check the bilirubin level.

For adults, tests to check for other diseases may include:

  • Hepatitis virus panel to look for infection of the liver;
  • Liver function tests to determine how well the liver is working;
  • Complete blood count to check for low blood count or anemia;
  • Abdominal ultrasound;
  • Abdominal CT scan;
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP);
  • Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiogram (PTCA);
  • Liver biopsy;
  • Cholesterol level;
  • Prothrombin time.

How is jaundice treated?

For adults, treatment usually involves treating the underlying cause of the jaundice. For babies, most cases do not need treatment.

When treatment is needed, the best is phototherapy.  This procedure is usually done on babies. It involves the baby lying naked under a fluorescent light. The baby has eye patches to protect the eyes during the treatment. The lights help break down excess bilirubin so it can be removed more easily.

An “ultraviolet blanket” can also be used. Bilirubin blood levels are checked regularly. Phototherapy usually lowers bilirubin levels in 2 days. Sometimes, the bilirubin level goes up after phototherapy, but only temporarily. The yellow color may last for a few days or even a week or two, even with low bilirubin blood levels.

In rare cases of extremely high bilirubin levels that cannot be lowered by phototherapy, exchange transfusion may be done. This treatment involves removing blood with high levels of bilirubin and replacing it with different blood.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage jaundice?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with jaundice:

  • Feed your baby often. This helps the baby pass more stools, which reduces the amount of bilirubin that the intestines absorb.
  • See your doctor right away if your baby seems to be getting jaundice again, because it can mean that there is a different problem. Once newborn jaundice clears up, it usually does not come back.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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Review Date: May 30, 2016 | Last Modified: January 4, 2017

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