Gilbert’s syndrome

Gilbert's syndrome causes slightly higher than normal levels of a substance called bilirubin to build up in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow substance found naturally in the blood. It forms when old red blood cells are broken down.

Symptoms of Gilbert's syndrome

Most people with Gilbert's syndrome experience occasional and short-lived episodes of jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes) due to the build-up of bilirubin in the blood.

As Gilbert's syndrome usually only causes a slight increase in bilirubin levels, the yellowing of jaundice is often mild. The eyes are usually affected most.

Some people also report other problems during episodes of jaundice, including:

These problems aren't necessarily thought to be directly related to increased bilirubin levels and could be related to a condition other than Gilbert’s syndrome.

Around one in three people with Gilbert’s syndrome don't experience any symptoms at all. You may not realise you have the syndrome until tests for an unrelated problem are carried out.

When to see your GP

You should see your GP if you experience an episode of jaundice for the first time.

The jaundice of Gilbert's syndrome is usually mild. But jaundice can be associated with more serious liver problems, such as cirrhosis or hepatitis C.

It's important to seek immediate medical advice from your GP if you have jaundice. If you can't get in touch with your GP, contact GP out of hours service for advice.

If you've been diagnosed with Gilbert’s syndrome (see below), you don't usually need to seek medical advice during an episode of jaundice, unless you have additional or unusual symptoms.

Causes of Gilbert’s syndrome

Gilbert’s syndrome is a genetic disorder that's hereditary (it runs in families).

People with the syndrome have a faulty gene which causes the liver to have problems removing bilirubin from the blood.

In Gilbert’s syndrome, the faulty gene means that bilirubin isn't passed into bile (a fluid produced by the liver to help with digestion) at the normal rate. Instead, it builds up in the bloodstream, giving the skin and white of the eyes a yellowish tinge.

Other than inheriting the faulty gene, there are no known risk factors for developing Gilbert's syndrome.

It isn't related to lifestyle habits, environmental factors or serious underlying liver problems, such as cirrhosis or hepatitis C.

What triggers the symptoms?

People with Gilbert’s syndrome often find there are certain triggers that can bring on an episode of jaundice.

Some of the possible triggers linked with the condition include:

  • being dehydrated
  • going without food for long periods of time (fasting)
  • being ill with an infection
  • being stressed
  • physical exertion
  • not getting enough sleep
  • having surgery
  • in women, having their monthly period

Where possible, avoiding known triggers can reduce your chance of experiencing episodes of jaundice.

Who's affected

Gilbert’s syndrome is common. But it's difficult to know exactly how many people are affected because it doesn't always cause obvious symptoms.

Gilbert's syndrome affects more men than women. It's usually diagnosed during a person's late teens or early 20s.

Diagnosing Gilbert's syndrome

Gilbert’s syndrome can be diagnosed using a blood test to measure the levels of bilirubin in your blood and a liver function test.

If the test results show you have high levels of bilirubin in your blood, but your liver is working normally, a diagnosis of Gilbert’s syndrome can usually be made.

In certain cases, a genetic test may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis of Gilbert's syndrome.

Living with Gilbert's syndrome

Gilbert’s syndrome is a lifelong disorder. It doesn't require treatment because it doesn't pose a threat to health and doesn't cause complications or an increased risk of liver disease.

Episodes of jaundice and any associated symptoms are usually short-lived and eventually pass.

If you have Gilbert's syndrome, there's no reason to modify your diet or the amount of exercise you do. The recommendations about eating a healthy, balanced diet and the physical activity guidelines still apply.

You may find it useful to avoid the things you know trigger episodes of jaundice, such as dehydration and stress.

If you have Gilbert's syndrome, the problem with your liver may also mean you're at risk of developing jaundice or other side effects after taking certain medications.

Seek medical advice before taking any new medication.  You should also mention to any doctors treating you for the first time that you have the syndrome.

Medications that shouldn't be taken if you have Gilbert's syndrome, unless advised by a doctor, include some types of HIV medication, some types of medication for high cholesterol and some chemotherapy medications

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published June 2018

This page is due for review June 2019

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