Published on Jun 18, 2018 and last reviewed on Jul 20, 2020 - 5 min read
Jaundice in adults can result from alcoholism, liver cancer, hepatitis, and many other conditions. Read the article to know more.
Jaundice is the yellowish discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes, which is a symptom caused by an underlying disease where there is an increase in the levels of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a breakdown byproduct.
Normally, the liver excretes this bilirubin through the bile. Bilirubin is a byproduct of the breakdown of RBCs (red blood cells). It releases hemoglobin molecules during this process. The heme is then converted to bilirubin, which is then excreted by the liver by filtering the blood.
The following internal conditions can cause yellowing of the skin:
Hepatitis - It is the inflammation of the liver, which can be due to infection (hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E), severe blood loss, autoimmune condition, alcohol, toxins, and medicines.
Thalassemia - An inherited blood disorder that leads to the formation of abnormal hemoglobin in the blood.
Pancreatic cancer - When the cells of the pancreas, which is an endocrine gland, grow out of control and result in cancer.
G6PD (Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency) - G6PD deficiency in the blood can destroy red blood cells in the blood prematurely and result in hemolytic anemia.
Gallstones - High levels of bilirubin, bile, or cholesterol in the gallbladder can result in the formation of gallstones, which can obstruct the bile ducts.
Liver cirrhosis - The irreversible scarring of the liver is called cirrhosis.
Sickle cell anemia - It is also a genetic blood disorder where the red blood cells are crescent or sickle-shaped.
Acute pancreatitis - This is a medical emergency caused by inflammation of the pancreas.
Idiopathic autoimmune hemolytic anemia - It is a serious blood disorder where the red blood cells are destroyed faster than they are produced.
Yellow fever - This is a potentially fatal viral infection that is spread by mosquitoes.
Weil’s disease - It is a severe type of leptospirosis, which is a bacterial infection.
Dubin-Johnson syndrome - It is also an inherited condition that prevents bilirubin from being secreted from the liver.
Crigler-Najjar syndrome - It is an inherited condition that affects the enzyme needed for processing bilirubin.
Pseudojaundice - It is a harmless condition where the yellowing of the skin is due to an excess of beta-carotene, which is an orangish-red pigment found in carrots and other vegetables.
As mentioned earlier, jaundice is the result of too much bilirubin in the blood. This yellow pigment bilirubin is the byproduct of the red blood cell breakdown. The bilirubin from the blood reaches the liver, from where it passes through the bile duct. The bile duct also carries digestive enzymes to the small intestine, from where bilirubin exits the body through urine or feces.
There can be a problem in any of the stages in the multi-step process. Depending on the site of a problem, there are three types of jaundice.
Pre-hepatic (hemolytic jaundice).
Hepatic (hepatocellular jaundice).
Post-hepatic (obstructive jaundice).
This type of jaundice is seen in conditions that increase the rate of hemolysis (the process of destruction of red blood cells). As the liver can only process a limited amount of bilirubin at once, it starts overflowing into the tissues.
The common conditions include malaria, sickle cell anemia, spherocytosis, and thalassemia. And the common symptoms are stomach pain, fever, chills, dark urine, pale stools, and itching. Drug abuse and hereditary blood disorders are some of the factors that increase the risk of this jaundice.
This type of jaundice results when the liver is damaged or impaired to filter out bilirubin from the blood. As this bilirubin cannot be filtered by your digestive system, the levels of bilirubin in the blood increases.
It is commonly seen in liver cirrhosis, viral hepatitis, primary biliary cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, leptospirosis, and liver cancer. Loss of appetite, bloody nose, itching, weight loss, abdominal swelling, skin darkening, and vomiting are some of the common symptoms of this type. The factors that increase the risk include drug use, binge drinking, hepatotoxic drugs, and a history of liver disease.
When the bile ducts are blocked, the bilirubin cannot be adequately drained, which results in this type of jaundice. Gallstones, pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, bile duct cancer, and biliary atresia are some conditions that can cause this. Nausea, vomiting, dark urine, unintentional weight loss, itching, fever, and abdominal swelling are common symptoms. And the risk factors are obesity, consuming a diet low in fiber and high in fat, diabetes, aging, smoking, binge drinking, and exposure to industrial chemicals.
In some cases, the patient might not develop any symptoms of jaundice, and it might be diagnosed accidentally. Depending on the cause, the severity of symptoms varies. If the cause is an infection, then the common symptoms include:
Yellowish discoloration of the skin and eyes.
Cough and flu-like symptoms.
If the cause is not an infection, then the symptoms experienced are:
Abnormal weight loss.
Itchy skin (pruritus).
Jaundice that results from pancreatic or biliary tract cancer can cause abdominal pain.
Complete blood count (CBC).
Liver function tests.
Ultrasound of liver.
The treatment depends on the condition that is causing the yellow discoloration.
In some cases, supportive care at home with watching is all that is needed. Whereas, in the case of anemia, blood transfusion is the protocol. In the case of infectious reasons, antibiotics will be prescribed. In obstructive jaundice, surgery will be necessary.
So, treatment varies depending on the cause, and it is advisable to consult your doctor in case you notice such a discoloration.
The following are some of the possible complications of jaundice:
Constipation or diarrhea.
There are no specific prevention methods for jaundice, as there are various causes. Some of the things that might help are:
Maintaining a healthy diet.
Limit the consumption of alcohol.
Maintaining good hygiene to prevent some types of hepatitis.
Keeping blood sugar level in check.
For more information on jaundice, consult a gastroenterologist online now!
Jaundice is caused when the liver is unable to breakdown old red blood cells properly and metabolize bilirubin, which is a byproduct. Jaundice is a symptom seen in many conditions like alcoholism, liver cancer, thalassemia, cirrhosis of the liver, gallstones, hepatitis, pancreatic cancer, sickle cell anemia, yellow fever, Paracetamol overdose, and Rh factor incompatibility.
As jaundice is a symptom and not a disease, treating the cause will get rid of jaundice also.
Once the treatment for the cause is started, the bilirubin level goes down, and the liver starts functioning normally. Depending on the cause and severity, jaundice can take from a few weeks to several days to get better.
Some conditions that result in jaundice like liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, etc., are serious and can be life-threatening. So, seeking immediate medical help to find the cause of jaundice is crucial.
Bilirubin levels higher than 20 to 25 mg/dL can be dangerous. Excess bilirubin in the blood can be neurotoxic and can damage the brain. This type of brain damage that results from high bilirubin in the blood is called kernicterus.
Things that can accelerate treatment for jaundice are drinking a lot of water, eating fruits like papaya and mango, as they are rich in digestive enzymes, eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, consuming a low-fat and high-fiber diet.
Patients with Gilbert syndrome, which is a genetic disorder of the liver, have elevated levels of bilirubin because they lack the enzyme required to eliminate bilirubin from the body. In such patients, symptoms of jaundice are seen with triggers like dehydration, stress, alcoholism, and exertion.
Lemon water is known to reduce inflammation and unblock the bile ducts, thus protects the liver and improves jaundice.
It is not always possible to prevent jaundice, as some conditions that cause it are genetic or of unknown cause. As it is mainly caused by liver damage, maintaining liver health is crucial. It is important to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and to limit the intake of alcohol.
You should drink a lot of water, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, herbal tea, nuts, lean proteins, and legumes. You should avoid consuming alcohol, canned food, refined carbohydrates, red meat, saturated and trans fats.
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