What is jaundice?

Jaundice is a disorder that causes the skin and white parts of the eyes to turn a yellowish colour. It is not a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of something happening. Jaundice occurs when there is an excess of bilirubin, a yellow compound which is formed by red blood cells breaking down in the body.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptom of jaundice is yellow discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes. In some cases, other symptoms such as coluria (very dark urine) and acolia (very light stools due to the absence of pigments derived from bilirubin) may occur.

Causes of jaundice

Jaundice occurs when there is an excess of bilirubin. Bilirubin is a waste product of haemoglobin, which is the main content of red blood cells. This bilirubin is processed in the liver and transported through the bile duct into the small intestine, and eliminated in the faeces. Jaundice occurs when there is an increase in the rate of destruction of red blood cells, for example in certain liver diseases and in diseases where there is a blockage of the bile duct.

Can it be prevented?

There are some measures which can be taken to prevent jaundice such as:

  • Avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Receiving the hepatitis vaccine
  • Avoiding certain medications (consult your doctor)

What is the treatment?

In adults and young children, jaundice should be considered only as a symptom of a disease. Therefore, the treatment should not be for jaundice, but for the disease causing it.

In newborns jaundice can occur, but it usually goes away on its own. If the jaundice is mild, then parents should ensure the baby is feeding properly and is kept hydrated. If the jaundice is severe, then certain treatments may be indicated. Blood transfusion can be performed to clear the bilirubin from the blood, or light therapy (phototherapy) may be used in order to promote excretion of bilirubin.

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