This information is about jaundice in adults; however, jaundice is also common in babies for many different reasons. If you're looking for information on jaundice in babies, go to the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website.
What is jaundice?
Jaundice is the yellow discolouration of your skin, the whites of your eyes and body fluids.
Jaundice is not a disease in itself, but is a sign of a health problem. It may be a sign of a problem in the liver, or sometimes in the gallbladder or pancreas. Occasionally, problems with your blood can cause jaundice.
If you have jaundice, it's important to visit your doctor straight away for a health check.
What symptoms are associated with jaundice?
In addition to a yellow discolouration of your skin and the whites of your eyes, the following symptoms can also occur with jaundice:
What causes jaundice?
Jaundice is caused by the build-up of a substance called bilirubin in your blood.
When an adult becomes jaundiced, it can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.
Because bilirubin is processed in the liver, jaundice is usually a symptom of liver disease. This can be caused by:
- viral infections (such as hepatitis A, B, C, D or E)
- cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or heavy drinking
- autoimmune disease, such as primary biliary cirrhosis
- hereditary conditions, such as Dubin–Johnson syndrome
- some medications
- Gilbert syndrome — a liver disorder causing an increase in bilirubin
Jaundice can also result from a blockage beyond the liver, caused by:
- pancreatic, liver or gallbladder cancer
- obstruction of the biliary tract
How is the cause of jaundice diagnosed?
Your doctor will talk to you, examine your abdomen and ask about your symptoms.
Your doctor may order blood and urine tests to check your level of bilirubin and assess the health of your liver. They may also order an ultrasound scan to check for obstructions or signs of liver and pancreatic disease. In some cases, your doctor may request a liver biopsy to confirm liver disease.
How is the cause of jaundice treated?
The underlying cause of jaundice in adults needs to be treated, not the jaundice itself.
Treatment options depend on the cause. For example, for hepatitis A plenty of rest, drinking a lot of fluid and avoiding alcohol and medicines impacting the liver help relieve symptoms, while there are effective medications for hepatitis B and C.
For other causes, such as gallstones, a blocked bile duct or pancreatic cancer, your doctor might suggest surgery.
Resources and support
If you need to know more about jaundice in adults, or to get advice on what to do next, talk to your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
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Last reviewed: March 2020