Jaundice

Jaundice is used to describe yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. Speak to a GP if you develop jaundice. It is a warning sign requiring investigation (see below). Newborn babies are often born with jaundice. Unlike jaundice in adults, this isn't usually a cause for concern.

Signs of jaundice

Jaundice is caused by a build-up of a substance called bilirubin in the blood and body's tissues.

Any condition that disrupts the movement of bilirubin from the blood to the liver and out of the body can cause jaundice.

The most common signs of jaundice are:

  • yellowing of the skin, eyes and the lining of the inside of parts of the body, such as the mouth and nose (mucus membrane)

Along with jaundice you may also notice

  • pale-coloured stools (poo)
  • dark-coloured urine (wee)

When to seek medical advice

Always seek immediate medical advice if you develop jaundice. It is a warning sign that something is wrong with the normal processes of your body.

If you feel well otherwise, speak to your GP as soon as possible, so your GP can investigate to find a cause, and refer you to hospital if necessary.

If you have jaundice and feel unwell, you should speak to your GP straight away. This is because you will probably need to be admitted to hospital.

If this isn't possible, contact your GP out of hours service.

Types of jaundice

There are three types of jaundice depending on what's disrupting the normal removal of bilirubin from the body. They are:

  • pre-hepatic jaundice  – the disruption happens before bilirubin has been transported from the blood to the liver; it's caused by conditions such as sickle cell anaemia and haemolytic anaemia
  • intra-hepatic jaundice (also known as hepatocellular jaundice) – the disruption happens inside the liver; it's caused by conditions such as Gilbert's syndrome, cirrhosis or other liver damage
  • post-hepatic jaundice (also known as obstructive jaundice) – the disruption prevents the bile (and the bilirubin inside it) from draining out of the gallbladder and into the digestive system; it's caused by conditions such as gallstones or tumours

Who's at risk

Intra-hepatic and post-hepatic jaundice are more common in middle-aged and elderly people than in the young. Pre-hepatic jaundice can affect people of all ages, including children.

Certain lifestyle changes may help prevent jaundice. For example, maintaining a healthy weight, not drinking too much alcohol, and minimising your risk of hepatitis, will all help.

Diagnosing jaundice

If you have jaundice, you'll have a number of tests to find out how severe it is and determine the underlying cause.

You'll probably have a urine test and liver function and blood tests.

Treating jaundice

Treatment for jaundice in adults and older children depends on what's causing it. This may involve treating the underlying condition, a blood transfusion or surgery.

Preventing jaundice

It's not possible to prevent all cases of jaundice because it can be caused by a wide range of conditions or circumstances.

You can take precautions to minimise your risk of developing jaundice. These include:

  • ensuring you don't exceed the recommended daily amount (RDA) for alcohol consumption
  • maintaining a healthy weight for your height and build
  • if appropriate, ensuring you're vaccinated against hepatitis A or hepatitis B if you're travelling to high-risk areas of the world
  • minimising your risk of exposure to hepatitis C because there's currently no vaccine for the condition; the most effective way of preventing hepatitis C is by not injecting illegal drugs, such as heroin, or making sure that you don't share drug injecting equipment if you do

Newborn jaundice

Newborn babies are often born with jaundice. At a very young age, the various systems the body uses to remove bilirubin from the body aren't fully developed.

Newborn jaundice isn't usually a cause for concern and often resolves within two weeks without treatment.

 

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 reviewed May 2018

This page is due for review May 2021

Health conditions A to Z

Search by health condition or symptoms

Or find conditions beginning with …

Share this page

Feedback

Your comments are anonymous and can’t be responded to - if you would like a reply, use the feedback form.

Your comments
Plain text only, 750 characters maximum. Don't include personal or financial information.