Jaundice: Overview

Alternative names: Icterus.

Jaundice (from the French word jaune, meaning yellow) is an abnormal condition in which the body fluids and tissues, particularly the skin and eyes, take on a yellowish color as a result of an excess of bilirubin.  It is important to recognize that jaundice itself is not a disease, but rather a symptom of an underlying pathological process that occurs at some point along the normal physiological pathway of the metabolism of bilirubin.

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Causes and Development

Jaundice is classified into three categories, depending on which part of the physiological mechanism the pathology affects.  The three categories are:

  • Pre-hepatic: The pathology is occurring prior the liver
  • Hepatic: The pathology is located within the liver
  • Post-Hepatic: The pathology is located after the conjugation of bilirubin in the liver.

In order to understand how jaundice results, it is important to understand where the pathological processes that cause jaundice take their effect.  During the normal breakdown of old red blood cells, their hemoglobin is converted into bilirubin.  Normally the bilirubin is removed from the bloodstream by the liver and eliminated from the body in the bile, which passes from the liver into the intestines.  Any disease that causes the red blood cells to break down can also cause jaundice.

There are several conditions that may interrupt the elimination of bilirubin from the blood and cause jaundice.  Hemolytic jaundice is caused by excessive disintegration of erythrocytes; it occurs in hemolytic and other types of anemia and in some infectious diseases such as malaria.  Another type of jaundice results from obstruction in or about the liver; usually a stone or stricture of the bile duct blocks the passage of bile from the liver into the intestines.  A third type of jaundice occurs when the liver cells are damaged by diseases such as hepatitis or cirrhosis of the liver; the damaged liver is unable to remove bilirubin from the blood.

Signs and Symptoms

Jaundice is yellowish discoloration of the skin, sclera (whites of the eyes) and mucous membranes caused by hyperbilirubinemia (increased levels of bilirubin in the blood).  This hyperbilirubinemia subsequently causes increased levels of bilirubin in the extracellular fluids.  Typically, the concentration of bilirubin in the plasma must exceed 1.5 mg/dL, three times the usual value of approximately 0.5mg/dL, for the coloration to be easily visible.

Treatment and Prevention

Treatment of jaundice is directed to the underlying cause.  Many instances of obstructive jaundice may require surgery.

Signs, symptoms & indicators of Jaundice:

Symptoms - Head - Eyes/Ocular

Symptoms - Head - Mouth/Oral

Symptoms - Skin - General

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Risk factors for Jaundice:



Malaria can cause jaundice through the loss of red blood cells.

Organ Health


Jaundice is a yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes caused by increased amounts of bilirubin in the bloodstream.  High levels of bilirubin my be excreted by the kidneys in response to inflammation of the liver cells caused by hepatitis.

Cirrhosis of the Liver

Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes that occurs when the diseased liver does not process enough bilirubin.

Gallbladder Disease

The gallbladder releases bile into the small intestines through a tube called the cystic duct, which connects to the bile duct.  When gallstones are obstructing these ducts, bile builds up in the gallbladder and increases the concentration of a yellowish substance called bilirubin in the blood, causing a yellowing of the skin known as jaundice.

Tumors, Malignant

Jaundice can lead to:

Laboratory Test Needed

Liver Function Test Requirement

Jaundice is a common problem and liver function testing may give clues to the cause.

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