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About Jaundice

• Usually appearing between the second and fourth day of life, jaundice is a sign of
overproduction of bilirubin, a substance usually related to liver disease. As explained
on the website, the overproduction of bilirubin is responsible
for the yellow coloration of babies suffering from jaundice, which can first be seen in
the face and then in the trunk and extremities. Yellow eyes, dark urine and pale feces
are other signs that a baby may have jaundice. In some cases, itchy skin, lethargy
and a slow pulse also have been observed.

• As listed on, a wide variety of medications may be
administered to babies suffering from jaundice, but only if adequate bed rest and fluid
intake have not fixed the problem before. First, anti-inflammatory medications such
as aspirin, Prednisone and Deltasone may be used to counter jaundice. Drugs that
reduce pain and fever such as Tylenol, Tempra and Feverall also may be
administered. Drugs that reduce nausea and vomiting such as Reglan and
metoclopramide have also proven effective. Also, immunosuppressive drugs like
azathioprine and Imuran are used to treat jaundice.

• Since the 1950s, indicates that the most widespread
treatment for jaundice after prophylactic measures is the use of phototherapy to
counter the overproduction of bilirubin and avoid neurotoxicity. Phototherapy, therapy
with light, can be administered in many ways. Because bilirubin absorbs light, special
wavelengths must be used that penetrate the baby's skin. Generally, babies suffering
from jaundice are exposed to white, blue, turquoise or green light in order to "bleach"
the excessive bilirubin and provide relief.

Intravenous Hydration
• According to the eMedicine website, jaundice sometimes causes babies to not be
able to keep down their mothers' milk. In this case, milk substitute is proposed since
it reduces circulation of bilirubin and helps flush out excess bilirubin. In more severe
cases of jaundice where not even milk substitute has proven effective and if the baby
shows signs of being dehydrated, intravenous hydration may be advisable.

Read more: Medication for Jaundice |

What is jaundice?

Jaundice is not a disease but rather a sign that can occur in many different diseases. Jaundice is
the yellowish staining of the skin and sclerae (the whites of the eyes) that is caused by high levels
in blood of the chemical bilirubin. The color of the skin and sclerae vary depending on the level of
bilirubin. When the bilirubin level is mildly elevated, they are yellowish. When the bilirubin level is
high, they tend to be brown.
What causes jaundice?

Bilirubin comes from red blood cells. When red blood cells get old, they are
destroyed. Hemoglobin, the iron-containing chemical in red blood cells that carries oxygen, is
released from the destroyed red blood cells after the iron it contains is removed. The chemical
that remains in the blood after the iron is removed becomes bilirubin.

The liver has many functions. One of the liver's functions is to produce and secrete bile into the
intestines to help digest dietary fat. Another is to remove toxic chemicals or waste products from
the blood, and bilirubin is a waste product. The liver removes bilirubin from the blood. After the
bilirubin has entered the liver cells, the cells conjugate (attaching other chemicals, primarily
glucuronic acid) to the bilirubin, and then secrete the bilirubin/glucuronic acid complex into bile.
The complex that is secreted in bile is called conjugated bilirubin. The conjugated bilirubin is
eliminated in the feces. (Bilirubin is what gives feces its brown color.) Conjugated bilirubin is
distinguished from the bilirubin that is released from the red blood cells and not yet removed from
the blood which is termed unconjugated bilirubin.

Jaundice occurs when there is 1) too much bilirubin being produced for the liver to remove from
the blood. (For example, patients with hemolytic anemia have an abnormally rapid rate of
destruction of their red blood cells that releases large amounts of bilirubin into the blood), 2) a
defect in the liver that prevents bilirubin from being removed from the blood, converted to
bilirubin/glucuronic acid (conjugated) or secreted in bile, or 3) blockage of the bile ducts that
decreases the flow of bile and bilirubin from the liver into the intestines. (For example, the bile
ducts can be blocked by cancers, gallstones, or inflammation of the bile ducts). The decreased
conjugation, secretion, or flow of bile that can result in jaundice is referred to as cholestasis:
however, cholestasis does not always result in jaundice.

What problems does jaundice cause?

Jaundice or cholestasis, by themselves, causes few problems (except in the newborn, and
jaundice in the newborn is different than most other types of jaundice, as discussed later.)
Jaundice can turn the skin and sclerae yellow. In addition, stool can become light in color, even
clay-colored because of the absence of bilirubin that normally gives stool its brown color. The
urine may turn dark or brownish in color. This occurs when the bilirubin that is building up in the
blood begins to be excreted from the body in the urine. Just as in feces, the bilirubin turns the
urine brown.

Besides the cosmetic issues of looking yellow and having dark urine and light stools, the
symptom that is associated most frequently associated with jaundice or cholestasis is itching,
medically known as pruritus. The itching associated with jaundice and cholestasis can sometimes
be so severe that it causes patients to scratch their skin "raw," have trouble sleeping, and, rarely,
even to commit suicide.

It is the disease causing the jaundice that causes most problems associated with jaundice.
Specifically, if the jaundice is due to liver disease, the patient may have symptoms or signs of
liver disease or cirrhosis. (Cirrhosis represents advanced liver disease.) The symptoms and signs
of liver disease and cirrhosis include fatigue, swelling of the ankles, muscle wasting, ascites (fluid
accumulation in the abdominal cavity), mental confusion or coma, and bleeding into the

If the jaundice is caused by blockage of the bile ducts, no bile enters the intestine. Bile is
necessary for digesting fat in the intestine and releasing vitamins from within it so that the
vitamins can be absorbed into the body. Therefore, blockage of the flow of bile can lead to
deficiencies of certain vitamins. For example, there may be a deficiency of vitamin K that prevents
proteins that are needed for normal clotting of blood to be made by the liver, and, as a result,
uncontrolled bleeding may occur.

What diseases cause jaundice?

Increased production of bilirubin

There are several uncommon conditions that give rise to over-production of bilirubin. The bilirubin
in the blood in these conditions usually is only mildly elevated, and the resultant jaundice usually
is mild and difficult to detect. These conditions include: 1) rapid destruction of red blood cells
(referred to as hemolysis), 2) a defect in the formation of red blood cells that leads to the over-
production of hemoglobin in the bone marrow (called ineffective erythropoiesis), or 3) absorption
of large amounts of hemoglobin when there has been much bleeding into tissues (e.g., from
hematomas, collections of blood in the tissues).

Acute inflammation of the liver

Any condition in which the liver becomes inflamed can reduce the ability of the liver to conjugate
(attach glucuronic acid to) and secrete bilirubin. Common examples include acute viral hepatitis,
alcoholic hepatitis, and Tylenol-induced liver toxicity.

Chronic liver diseases

Chronic inflammation of the liver can lead to scarring and cirrhosis, and can ultimately result in
jaundice. Common examples include chronic hepatitis B and C, alcoholic liver disease with
cirrhosis, and autoimmune hepatitis.

Infiltrative diseases of the liver

Infiltrative diseases of the liver refer to diseases in which the liver is filled with cells or substances
that don't belong there. The most common example would be metastatic cancer to the liver,
usually from cancers within the abdomen. Uncommon causes include a few diseases in which
substances accumulate within the liver cells, for example, iron (hemochromatosis), alpha-one
antitrypsin (alpha-one antitrypsin deficiency), and copper (Wilson's disease).

Inflammation of the bile ducts

Diseases causing inflammation of the bile ducts, for example, primary biliary cirrhosis
or sclerosing cholangitis and some drugs, can stop the flow of bile and elimination of bilirubin and
lead to jaundice.

Blockage of the bile ducts

The most common causes of blockage of the bile ducts are gallstones andpancreatic cancer.
Less common causes include cancers of the liver and bile ducts.


Many drugs can cause jaundice and/or cholestasis. Some drugs can cause liver inflammation
(hepatitis) similar to viral hepatitis. Other drugs can cause inflammation of the bile ducts, resulting
in cholestasis and/or jaundice. Drugs also may interfere directly with the chemical processes
within the cells of the liver and bile ducts that are responsible for the formation and secretion of
bile to the intestine. As a result, the constituents of bile, including bilirubin, are retained in the
body. The best example of a drug that causes this latter type of cholestasis and jaundice is
estrogen. The primary treatment for jaundice caused by drugs is discontinuation of the drug.
Almost always the bilirubin levels will return to normal within a few weeks, though in a few cases
it may take several months.

Genetic disorders

There are several rare genetic disorders present from birth that give rise to jaundice. Crigler-
Najjar syndrome is caused by a defect in the conjugation of bilirubin in the liver due to a reduction
or absence of the enzyme responsible for conjugating the glucuronic acid to bilirubin. Dubin-
Johnson and Rotor's syndromes are caused by abnormal secretion of bilirubin into bile.

The only common genetic disorder that may cause jaundice is Gilbert's syndrome which affects
approximately 7% of the population. Gilbert's syndrome is caused by a mild reduction in the
activity of the enzyme responsible for conjugating the glucuronic acid to bilirubin. The increase in
bilirubin in the blood usually is mild and infrequently reaches levels that cause jaundice. Gilbert's
syndrome is a benign condition that does not cause health problems.

Developmental abnormalities of bile ducts

There are rare instances in which the bile ducts do not develop normally and the flow of bile is
interrupted. Jaundice frequently occurs. These diseases usually are present from birth though
some of them may first be recognized in childhood or even adulthood. Cysts of the bile duct
(choledochal cysts) are an example of such a developmental abnormality. Another example is
Caroli's disease.

Jaundice of pregnancy

Most of the diseases discussed previously can affect women during pregnancy, but there are
some additional causes of jaundice that are unique to pregnancy.

Cholestasis of pregnancy. Cholestasis of pregnancy is an uncommon condition that occurs in

pregnant women during the third trimester. The cholestasis is often accompanied by itching but
infrequently causes jaundice. The itching can be severe, but there is treatment (ursodeoxycholic
acid or ursodiol). Pregnant women with cholestasis usually do well although they may be at
greater risk for developing gallstones. More importantly, there appears to be an increased risk to
the fetus for developmental abnormalities. Cholestasis of pregnancy is more common in certain
groups, particularly in Scandinavia and Chile, and tends to occur with each additional pregnancy.
There also is an association between cholestasis of pregnancy and cholestasis caused by
oral estrogens, and it has been hypothesized that it is the increased estrogens during pregnancy
that are responsible for the cholestasis of pregnancy.

Pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia, previously called toxemia of pregnancy, is a disease that occurs

during the second half of pregnancy and involves several systems within the body, including the
liver. It may result in high blood pressure, fluid retention, and damage to the kidneys as well as
anemia and reduced numbers of platelets due to destruction of red blood cells and platelets. It
often causes problems for the fetus. Although the bilirubin level in the blood is elevated in pre-
eclampsia, it usually is mildly elevated, and jaundice is uncommon. Treatment of pre-eclampsia
usually involves delivery of the fetus as soon as possible if the fetus is mature.

Acute fatty liver of pregnancy. Acute fatty liver of pregnancy (AFLP) is a very serious
complication of pregnancy of unclear cause that often is associated with pre-eclampsia. It occurs
late in pregnancy and results in failure of the liver. It can almost always be reversed by immediate
delivery of the fetus. There is an increased risk of infant death. Jaundice is common, but not
always present in AFLP. Treatment usually involves delivery of the fetus as soon as possible.

What is neonatal jaundice (jaundice in newborn infants)?

Neonatal jaundice is jaundice that begins within the first few days after birth. (Jaundice that is
present at the time of birth suggests a more serious cause of the jaundice.) In fact, bilirubin levels
in the blood become elevated in almost all infants during the first few days following birth, and
jaundice occurs in more than half. For all but a few infants, the elevation and jaundice represents
a normal physiological phenomenon and does not cause problems.

The cause of normal, physiological jaundice is well understood. During life in the uterus, the red
blood cells of the fetus contain a type of hemoglobin that is different than the hemoglobin that is
present after birth. When an infant is born, the infant's body begins to rapidly destroy the red
blood cells containing the fetal-type hemoglobin and replaces them with red blood cells containing
the adult-type hemoglobin. This floods the liver with bilirubin derived from the fetal hemoglobin
from the destroyed red blood cells. The liver in a newborn infant is not mature, and its ability to
process and eliminate bilirubin is limited. As a result of both the influx of large amounts of bilirubin
and the immaturity of the liver, bilirubin accumulates in the blood. Within two or three weeks, the
destruction of red blood cells ends, the liver matures, and the bilirubin levels return to normal.

There is another uncommon syndrome associated with neonatal jaundice, referred to as breast-
milk or breast feeding jaundice. In this syndrome, jaundice appears to be caused by or at least
accentuated by breast feeding. Although the cause of this type of jaundice is unknown, it has
been hypothesized that there is something in breast milk that reduces the ability of the liver to
process and eliminate bilirubin. With breast-milk jaundice, the bilirubin levels rise and reach peak
levels in approximately two weeks, remain elevated for a week or so, and then decline to normal
over several weeks or months. This timing of the elevation in bilirubin and jaundice is different
than normal physiological jaundice described previously and allows the two causes of jaundice to
be differentiated. The real importance of the more prolonged jaundice associate with breast-milk
jaundice is that it raises the possibility that there is a more serious cause for the jaundice that
needs to be sought, for example, biliary atresia (destruction of the bile ducts). Breast-milk
jaundice alone usually does not cause problems for the infant.

Physiologic jaundice and breast-milk jaundice usually do not cause problems for the infant;
however, there is a concern that high or prolonged elevations in levels of unconjugated bilirubin
(the type of bilirubin that is not attached to glucuronic acid and the main type of bilirubin that is
present in physiologic and breast-milk jaundice) will cause neurologic damage to the infant.
Therefore, when unconjugated bilirubin levels are high or prolonged, treatment usually is started
to lower the levels of bilirubin. Treatment may be started earlier in infants who are born
prematurely since their livers take longer to mature, and the risk of higher and more prolonged
elevations of bilirubin is greater. Treatment involves phototherapy with artificial or natural sunlight
and, if phototherapy is not successful, exchange transfusion in which the infant's blood is
exchanged for normal blood from blood donors.

The benign nature of physiologic and breast-milk allergy need to be distinguished from hemolytic
disease of the newborn, a much more serious, even life-threatening cause of jaundice in
newborns that is due to blood group incompatibilities between mother and fetus, for example Rh
incompatibility. The incompatibility results in an attack by the mother's antibodies on the babies
red blood cells leading to hemolysis. Fortunately, because of modern management of pregnancy,
this cause of jaundice is rare.

How is the cause of jaundice diagnosed?

Many tests are available for determining the cause of jaundice, but the history and physical
examination are important as well.


The history can suggest possible reasons for the jaundice. For example, heavy use of alcohol
suggests alcoholic liver disease, whereas use of illegal, injectable drugs suggests viral hepatitis.
Recent initiation of a new drug suggests drug-induced jaundice. Episodes of abdominal
painassociated with jaundice suggests blockage of the bile ducts usually by gallstones.

Physical examination

The most important part of the physical examination in a patient who is jaundiced is examination
of the abdomen. Masses (tumors) in the abdomen suggest cancer infiltrating the liver (metastatic
cancer) as the cause of the jaundice. An enlarged, firm liver suggests cirrhosis. A rock-hard,
nodular liver suggests cancer within the liver.

Blood tests

Measurement of bilirubin can be helpful in determining the causes of jaundice. Markedly greater
elevations of unconjugated bilirubin relative to elevations of conjugated bilirubin in the blood
suggest hemolysis (destruction of red blood cells). Marked elevations of liver tests (aspartate
amino transferase or AST and alanine amino transferase or ALT) suggest inflammation of the
liver (such as viral hepatitis). Elevations of other liver tests, e.g., alkaline phosphatase, suggest
diseases or obstruction of the bile ducts.


Ultrasonography is a simple, safe, and readily-available test that uses sound waves to examine
the organs within the abdomen. Ultrasound examination of the abdomen may disclose gallstones,
tumors in the liver or the pancreas, and dilated bile ducts due to obstruction (by gallstones or

Computerized tomography (CT or CAT scans)

Computerized tomography or CT scans are scans that use x-rays to examine the soft tissues of
the abdomen. They are particularly good for identifying tumors in the liver and the pancreas and
dilated bile ducts, though they are not as good as ultrasonography for identifying gallstones.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans are scans that utilize magnetization of the body to examine
the soft tissues of the abdomen. Like CT scans, they are good for identifying tumors and studying
bile ducts. MRI scans can be modified to visualize the bile ducts better than CT scans (a
procedure referred to as MR cholangiography), and, therefore, are better than CT for identifying
the cause and location of bile duct obstruction.

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) and endoscopic ultrasound

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) provides the best means for

examining the bile duct. For ERCP an endoscope is swallowed by the patient after he or she has
been sedated. The endoscope is a flexible, fiberoptic tube approximately four feet in length with a
light and camera on its tip. The tip of the endoscope is passed down the esophagus, through the
stomach, and into the duodenum where the main bile duct enters the intestine. A thin tube then is
passed through the endoscope and into the bile duct, and the duct is filled with x-ray contrast
solution. An x-ray is taken that clearly demonstrates the contrast-filled bile ducts. ERCP is
particularly good at demonstrating the cause and location of obstruction within the bile ducts. A
major advantage of ERCP is that diagnostic and therapeutic procedures can be done at the same
time as the x-rays. For example, if gallstones are found in the bile ducts, they can be removed.
Stents can be placed in the bile ducts to relieve the obstruction caused by scarring or tumors.
Biopsies of tumors can be obtained.

Ultrasonography can be combined with ERCP by using a specialized endoscope capable of doing
ultrasound scanning. Endoscopic ultrasound is excellent for diagnosing small gallstones in the
gallbladder and bile ducts that can be missed by other diagnostic methods such as ultrasound,
CT, and MRI. It also is the best means of examining the pancreas for tumors and can facilitate
biopsy through the endoscope of tumors within the pancreas.

Liver biopsy

Biopsy of the liver provides a small piece of tissue from the liver for examination under the
microscope. The biopsy most commonly is done with a long needle after local injection of the skin
of the abdomen overlying the liver with anesthetic. The needle passes through the skin and into
the liver, cutting off a small piece of liver tissue. When the needle is withdrawn, the piece of liver
comes with it. Liver biopsy is particularly good for diagnosing inflammation of the liver and bile
ducts, cirrhosis, cancer, and fatty liver.

How is jaundice treated?

With the exception of the treatments for specific causes of jaundice mentioned previously, the
treatment of jaundice usually requires a diagnosis of the specific cause of the jaundice and
treatment directed at the specific cause, e.g., removal of a gallstone blocking the bile duct.