What is Jaundice? Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Complications

If your skin, the whites of your eyes, tongue, or body fluids have a yellow discoloration, you have jaundice. It is not a disease in itself, but typically a sign of an underlying health problem. In other words, it comes under the umbrella term signs and symptoms. Jaundice is common in newborn babies.

Jaundice occurs when there is an accumulation of bilirubin in the body. Bilirubin is a waste produce that is formed when red blood cells are broken down.

In healthy people, bilirubin is processed by the liver and excreted in the stool. However, when the liver cannot process the bilirubin properly, it builds up in the bloodstream, leading to a yellow discoloration, i.e., jaundice.

Regarding jaundice in newborns, the UK’s NHS (National Health Service) says the following:

“Jaundice in newborn babies is common and usually harmless. It causes yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. The medical term for jaundice in babies is neonatal jaundice.”

Causes of jaundice

Here are the most common causes:

  • Liver disease

Hepatitis, liver cancer, and cirrhosis are some examples of diseases that can undermine the liver’s ability to process bilirubin.

  • Blocked bile ducts

Tumors or gallstones can block the bile ducts, through which bile travels from the liver to the intestines. This can lead to an accumulation of bilirubin in the liver and also the bloodstream.

  • Blood disorders

Thalassemia and sickle cell anemia can trigger and increased breakdown of red blood cells, which in turn lead to a buildup of bilirubin.

Signs and symptoms

If both you and your doctor and detect, sense, feel it, then it is a sign. A skin rash is a sign. If only you can sense, detect, feel it, then it is a symptom. A headache is a symptoms. Your doctor or nurse can only know about your headache if you tell them.

People with jaundice have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes, tongue, and other mucous membranes.

These may also be possible:

  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Vomiting.
  • Nausea.
  • Dark urine.
  • Pale stools (poop is pale).
  • Fever.
  • Chills.


The doctor typically diagnoses jaundice after carrying out a physical examination and looking at blood test results. They may order a liver biopsy, imaging tests and other tests to help determine what the underlying cause of the jaundice might be.

Treatment for jaundice

The treatment depends on what is causing the discoloration of the skin, etc. If it is due to a liver disease, the doctor will prescribe medication to manage it and prevent further damage.

Surgery may be necessary if the cause is a blocked bile duct. Phototherapy is main treatment of neonatal jaundice (newborns).

Examples of jaundice

Image created by medicalvocab.com


If you have jaundice, i.e., if you notice a yellow/orange discoloration of your skin, eyes, or tongue, you should seek medical help immediately. If you don’t, you run the risk of developing some serious complications, such as:

  • Dehydration

Loss of appetite and nausea, which jaundice commonly causes, can lead to severe dehydration (lack of fluids, liquids, water).

  • Itching

Your skin will start itching more and more as bilirubin levels in your blood increase.

  • Liver failure

Acute liver failure, which can occur in some extreme cases, is a serious and possibly life-threatening complication.

  • Brain damage

If bilirubin builds up in the brain, kernicterus can occur, which may lead to neurological problems and brain damage.

According to the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:”

“Kernicterus is a type of brain damage that can result from high levels of bilirubin in a baby’s blood. It can cause athetoid cerebral palsy and hearing loss. Kernicterus also causes problems with vision and teeth and sometimes can cause intellectual disabilities. Early detection and management of jaundice can prevent kernicterus.”

If you notice that your skin, eyes, or tongue are going yellow, contact your doctor as soon as possible.

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