Causes of Jaundice in Adults


Jaundice is a medical condition that usually affects newborns, but can occur in adults as well. Jaundice isn’t actually a disease, but usually the indication of a disease. It is characterized by the yellow pigmentation of the skin and the whites of the eyes. Other symptoms include a light-colored, almost white stool and dark urine. Damage to the liver is a primary cause of jaundice. There are many different diseases that can cause liver damage and other conditions that lead to jaundice in adults.

Bile Duct Blockage

Jaundice is caused by the buildup of bilirubin, which is a byproduct of the body caused when new red blood cells are made. Old blood cells are treated as waste, and the hemoglobin inside of them turns into bilirubin, which creates the yellow pigmentation. The bilirubin then makes its way into bile that travels from the liver to the intestines. If this process is disturbed by bile duct blockage, the bilirubin can build up, causing jaundice. Common afflictions that cause bile duct blockage are gallstones or tumors.

Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Long-term alcohol abuse plays a major part in cirrhosis, or disease of the liver. In the United States, alcoholism is the main reason for the development of cirrhosis in adults. Depending on the body’s tolerance for alcohol, the amount of alcohol consumed that can cause damage varies from person to person. The damage to the liver causes bilirubin buildup, which leads to jaundice. Other symptoms of cirrhosis include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, loss of weight and dry, itchy skin.


Hepatitis is when the liver becomes inflamed. There are many types of hepatitis, including viral hepatitis and hepatitis A, B, C and D. Hepatitis A, B, C and D are usually associated with drug-related complications. Certain medications, including acetaminophen, ibuprofen and naproxen, have been known to cause liver inflammation that can lead to hepatitis. The liver helps break down drugs in the body, and for some people the process is slower. Sometimes, even normal doses of these drugs can cause liver damage. Another type of this disease, autoimmune hepatitis, can be passed down genetically and may require a liver transplant.

Hemolytic Anemia

Hemolytic anemia occurs when red blood cells are destroyed too early, causing a severe decrease in the number of red blood cells in the body. When bone marrow cannot produce enough red blood cells to replace the destroyed red blood cells, anemia will occur. Symptoms can include jaundice, chills, very pale skin, fatigue and quickened heartbeat. There are several types of hemolytic anemia, some of the more common being hemoglobin SC disease, elliptocystosis, ovalocystosis, sickle-cell anemia and malaria.

Pancreatic Cancer

Approximately one-third of pancreatic cancer is caused by the use of cigarettes. Pancreatic cancer tends to affect men more than women, and is typically more common in smokers or people who are overweight. A tumor in the pancreas can cause the biliary obstruction that can lead to jaundice. Other symptoms include back pain, diarrhea, fatigue, loss of weight and vomiting. The prognosis is typically negative; in about 80 percent of people who have surgery to remove pancreatic tumors, the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body and is inoperable.

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