Overview – What is it?
Jaundice is the term used to refer to the yellowing of the skin and eyes, a condition which is usually caused by other conditions such as hepatitis.
Some of the symptoms of jaundice include pale stools, yellow tinge to the skin and dark urine.
It can be diagnosed through a physical exam and a bilirubin test, among other tests. Jaundice itself is not treated but instead, the condition causing it is treated helping the jaundice to go away.
To prevent jaundice, you have to prevent yourself from getting conditions that cause it.
Causes – What causes it?
Jaundice occurs when the body does not process bilirubin (a yellowish waste material that remains in the blood after iron is removed from the blood) properly. Bilirubin is filtered by the liver from the bloodstream, but if the liver has a problem, bilirubin builds up causing the skin and the white part of the eye to become yellow. Jaundice can be caused by certain health conditions such as:
- Hepatitis: This is caused by the hepatitis virus and may be acute or chronic. Hepatitis causes scarring of the liver which can, in turn, cause jaundice if the liver becomes damaged.
- Pancreatic cancer: Pancreatic cancer can block the bile duct and cause jaundice.
- Alcoholic cirrhosis: Excessive alcohol intake can lead to liver cirrhosis which can harm the liver and cause jaundice.
- Blocked bile ducts: Apart from pancreatic cancer, the bile duct can be blocked by gallstones, other cancers and rare liver conditions, the blockage can cause jaundice.
Other risk factors for jaundice include:
- The use of certain medicines such as acetaminophen, steroids and birth control pills.
- Haemolytic anaemia which occurs when large quantities of red blood cells are broken down increasing production of bilirubin which can cause jaundice.
- Cholestasis which interrupts the flow of bile from the liver causing bilirubin to remain in the liver instead of being excreted.
- Gilbert’s syndrome, an inherited condition which impairs the enzyme’s ability to process and excrete bile.
Symptoms – What do you feel?
Jaundice is not a disease but a sign of an underlying disease and depending on the underlying cause, people with jaundice may experience the following symptoms:
- Yellowing of the skin and the white part of the eye
- Pale-coloured stool
- Dark-coloured urine
- Itching of the skin
Other symptoms that may occur due to low levels of bilirubin include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
During the initial consultation with the doctor, the doctor does a physical exam to check for visible symptoms such as yellowing of the eye and skin, finds out what other symptoms you have, and gets to know your medical history. After that, other tests can then be carried out such as:
- Blood test: This is done to determine the liver function by checking the level of certain proteins and enzymes produced by the liver.
- Complete blood count (CBC): Used to check whether you have haemolytic anaemia.
- Liver biopsy: Small samples of liver tissue are taken and tested using a microscope to determine whether there are any abnormalities such as the presence of cancer cells.
- Imaging tests: These are done to view internal organs in the abdomen and determine whether there are any abnormalities. The tests a can be carried out using an ultrasound, computerised tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or cholescintigraphy scan.
Treatment – How do you treat it?
Since jaundice is not a condition on its own, it can only be treated by treating its underlying cause. Some treatments include:
- Antibiotics to treat jaundice caused by hepatitis.
- Taking iron supplements to treat jaundice caused by anaemia.
- Surgery to treat jaundice caused by obstruction such as bile duct blockage.
- Changing medication in cases where jaundice is caused by certain medication.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
The prevention of jaundice is based on preventing the factors that cause it. This can be through:
- Eating a balanced diet,
- Exercising regularly,
- Avoiding excessive alcohol intake,
- Taking medicine as instructed to prevent liver damage,
- Practising safe sex to prevent yourself from getting viruses like hepatitis that can lead to liver damage,
- Getting vaccinated for conditions like hepatitis A and B that can cause liver damage,
- Eating food that is prepared well and drinking clean water that has been boiled or treated to avoid getting hepatitis A, and
- Not smoking as smoking increases the risk for several cancers, including pancreatic cancer which can cause jaundice.