What Is Jaundice in Adults?

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Most people associate jaundice with newborn babies, but adults can have the condition as well. Jaundice is when the skin and membranes (such as the whites of the eyes) turn a yellowish or a yellow-brown color because too much of the chemical bilirubin is circulating in the blood. In adults, jaundice indicates an underlying medical problem, such as liver damage. Any person displaying signs of jaundice should consult a medical professional as soon as possible.

Biological cause of jaundice

Bilirubin is a waste product that results from the breakdown of hemoglobin. Under normal circumstances, the liver removes bilirubin from the blood. However, jaundice can occur when: 1) there is too much bilirubin for the liver to remove, 2) a defect prevents the liver from properly removing the bilirubin, and 3) the bile duct that allows bilirubin to drain from the liver into the intestines is blocked.

Diseases that cause jaundice

Jaundice in adults is most often caused by diseases or conditions that affect the liver. Typical examples are hepatitis B and C, cirrhosis, and cancer of the liver. Jaundice may also be caused by objects that obstruct the bile ducts, such as a tumor or gallstone. More unusually, jaundice can be caused by substances that have accumulated within the liver cell. For example, the accumulation of iron (hemochromatosis) can result in jaundice, as can the accumulation of copper (Wilson's disease). Certain drugs can also cause jaundice, as some medicines can cause inflammation of the liver or bile duct.

Problems caused by jaundice

In addition to turning the skin yellow, jaundice can cause a person to become very itchy (the medical term is "pruritus"). According to Medicinenet,com, the itching can be so intense that some people will scratch their skin raw, have trouble sleeping and, in rare cases, commit suicide. Mostly, however, the problems associated with jaundice arise from the underlying medical condition causing the jaundice.


Jaundice is diagnosed by a physical exam and observation by a doctor. However, equally important to assessing that the patient is suffering from jaundice is determining why the patient is jaundiced. Thus, a doctor will likely order a series of blood tests, including: a "serum bilirubin," which measures the amount of bilirubin in the blood; a "complete blood count" that will give information about the components of the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets; "Prothrombin time," a test that measures the blood's ability to clot. In addition, a doctor may want to do an ultrasound of the liver to determine whether it is swollen or otherwise abnormal, and/or a biopsy of the liver, where a piece of the liver tissue is surgically removed to be analyzed in a laboratory.


Because jaundice is not a disease but merely a symptom of a disease, treatment varies depending on the underlying condition causing the jaundice. For example, if the jaundice is being caused by a blocked bile duct, the treatment will be to remove the blockage. If medication is causing the liver or bile duct to become inflamed, the patient will be instructed to stop taking the medication.

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